At a time when the world’s attention is focused on combating the spread of Covid-19, there is a move of huge significance taking place in the Middle East. Israel’s newly-formed coalition government is planning to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank – a move that has its origin in President Trump’s “deal of the century” published in January.
Israel’s government, led at present by Benjamin Netanyahu, appears determined to unilaterally annex 30% of the occupied West Bank. Although there is little appetite for the annexation amongst the Israeli public, Netanyahu is pressing ahead with the plan at break-neck speed. He has only 18 months remaining in office before handing power to his main coalition partner Benny Gantz, who seems less enthusiastic about annexation.
With an election looming in the US, Trump is pressing hard to see annexation achieved before voters go to the polls in November, and believes the move can strengthen support in an evangelical and right-wing electoral base. It is likely to play less well with the American Jewish community, where there is significant opposition to the proposals.
Annexation is profoundly wrong for two reasons. Firstly, it is clearly against international law and in violation of several UN Security Council Resolutions. If Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was illegal, so too is the unilateral annexation of large parts of the West Bank. International law is clear: territory seized by force cannot be unilaterally annexed. Secondly, annexation would fundamentally undermine the prospect of a viable two-state solution. This is the only way to secure a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and such a move would only serve to undermine Palestinian trust in any future peace negotiations.
There are also wider implications for regional peace and stability. Annexation would threaten Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, as well as undermining the prospect of future co-operation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at a time when it has never been more needed. It should be of little surprise that the proposals have been met with opposition from many Israeli figures, including voices from the military.
On Monday, I raised my concerns with the Minister of State. His answer was deeply worrying. While the UK government says it opposes annexation, it is apparently unwilling to go beyond rhetorical criticism. Frankly, that is not good enough.
France, Belgium and Ireland have already indicated that they are prepared to go further, and today EU foreign ministers will consider their collective response. A letter signed by parliamentarians from across Europe, calling for “equal rights of both Israelis and Palestinians” in opposition to annexation, shows the breadth of support for an international response. Britain must not be a passive observer, and Labour will continue to push the government to meet our international and moral obligation.
In addition, the British government should ban goods from the illegal settlements in the West Bank. The issue of labelling remains to be resolved, but this move would send out a clear message that such a blatant breach of international law is not without consequence.
At a time when the world should be pulling together to face the global threat of Covid-19, it is more important than ever that we build the case for multilateral cooperation and adherence to international law. This is where we stand, and it is imperative that the government translates rhetoric into action.