This is a tough time to be a cheerleader for the U.S.-Israel relationship. It is not easy to watch as our close partner - with the recklessencouragement of the White House - considers annexing parts of the West Bank, a policy that would imperil both countries' interests despite the clear availability of better alternatives.
I am proud of my advocacy for the bond between these two nations, which has spanned my whole career as a scholar and think tank director. I argued publicly that the United States should move its embassy to Jerusalem. I opposed the Iran nuclear deal and urged senators to vote against that flawed agreement. I believe bolstering Israel advances U.S. interests, strengthening a pro-American ally in the world's most turbulent region.
And yet even to an ardent proponent of U.S.-Israel cooperation, this example of it defies all logic. For Washington, it kills whatever slim chance remains for President Donald Trump's peace plan. For Palestinians, it validates the claim that Israel just wants territorial expansion. For Jerusalem, it abandons a relatively secure and surprisingly durable status quo for no real reason. If the U.S. and Israeli governments can't convince even me of the logic here, there is no hope they will convince others that annexation is anything but a domestic political maneuver fueled by the growing electoral power of Israel's ideologically motivated settlement movement, devoid of strategic rationale.
Annexation emerged as a real possibility (rather than a theoretical policy favored by fringe figures) in January, when Trump unexpectedly appended a promise of U.S. backing for the move to the announcement of his long-awaited peace plan. Ever since, I have looked for a compelling explanation for why Israel should unilaterally extend its sovereignty over territory it long claimed was in dispute, a step that will undermine its legal justification to be in the territory in the first place. To my great regret, that search has been unsuccessful.
Over the past two decades, Israel has offered Palestinians statehood based on progressively more generous territorial compromises and, when those offers were rejected, preserved a tolerable less-than-peace status quo. Under its octogenarian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority grouses about an array of indignities but not so much that it embraces violent uprising; it works closely with the Israeli government to counter the spread of the radical Hamas movement into the West Bank and prevent anti-Israel terrorism. This situation has allowed for both Palestinian self-government and Israeli settlement growth, all under ultimate Israeli security control. Israel's Army oversees the entire West Bank, its civil law governs its citizens living there, and it has accustomed the international community to this approach.
Unilateral annexation is a radical departure. After hours of discussion with current and former senior Israeli government officials with intimate knowledge of the annexation initiative, it is clear to me that the idea springs from a gloomy view of Israel's strategic situation in which the world's consensus on what constitutes a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lurched leftward - in a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel direction - as Israeli politics has shifted rightward. Israel traditionally viewed the peace process as a way to achieve secure and defensible borders for the Jewish state; settlement growth, especially outposts deep in the West Bank, complicated this by providing a rationale to claim more land in an eventual deal. At the same time, much of the world moved in the opposite direction, viewing the entire area as legitimately Palestinian and negotiations as merely a mechanism for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines from Israel's independence war.
Many Israelis are worried that a future American administration might be sympathetic to this emerging global view. In 2016, as President Barack Obama's term wound down, his administration broke with decades of U.S. policy and declined to block a U.N. Security Council resolution labeling as illegal all Israeli settlements, including all construction in East Jerusalem. It horrified Jerusalem and fed a fear that its closest ally might someday join the chorus calling for Israel to return to what the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once called "Auschwitz borders."
The Trump administration's more sympathetic approach, in the view of annexation advocates, gives Israel an opportunity to construct its own future without fear of American meddling. Just as with the embassy move, they believe annexation will trigger little global reaction. Once Israel has a sovereign eastern border recognized by the United States, other nations will reconcile themselves to the new reality. Indeed, advocates even contend that many Arab nations would actually welcome annexation for taking the territorial issue off the agenda, allowing them to pursue mutually beneficial ties with the Jewish state.
There may be something to that analysis. Arab countries have warmed to Israel in recent years, as leaders routinely mouth bromides about the Palestinians while building common cause with Jerusalem against Iran and doing private business deals to take advantage of Israel's high-tech prowess. And in U.S. politics, the drift away from unwavering support for Israel within the Democratic Party is real.
But neither trend is written in stone. This month, for example, the Emirati ambassador to the United Stateswrote an essay for Israel's largest newspaper telling Israelis they can't have it both ways - they must choose between annexation and normalization. And here in America, while a chorus of Israel critics received the most attention for their 2018 congressional victories, moderates won the vast majority of Democratic seats that night. A moderate candidate clinched the Democratic presidential nomination this year, even more swiftly and decisively than four years ago.
Maintaining the status quo, therefore, may hold theoretical future risks, but annexation invites much more immediate dangers. These include, for example, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority; a third Palestinian intifada; the suspension of the peace treaty with Jordan, the Arab country most intimately connected with the Palestinians; or a rupture in diplomatic relations with Israel's allies abroad, including perhaps the imposition by European countries of sanctions on goods and people connected to Israel's annexed territories.
I wanted to know why Israel would risk a favorable status quo to gamble on an uncertain international reaction. Why would Israel want to distract the world from Iran precisely when Tehran is breaking every remaining constraint in the 2015 nuclear deal? Why would Israel take steps that help prosecutors at the International Criminal Court assemble a case against it? Why would Israel invite the embarrassment of a President Joe Biden - one of the few non-Jewish political figures on the left to call himself a Zionist - revoking Trump's recognition of annexation?
With every question, the annexation proponents with whom I talked kept returning to the same theme: Israel is essentially alone in the world; we need to take our destiny into our own hands. We know there will be some turbulence at the beginning, perhaps for a month or two, but we can withstand it. The time to act is now.
My search for a rationale for annexation left me especially troubled and sad. The advocates with whom I spoke are shockingly defeatist about Israel's diplomatic future and vainly indifferent to the danger they are courting. For my part, it felt odd to speak out against a seminal policy shift jointly endorsed by American and Israeli leaders. But the potential for long-term damage to the relationship is so great that anything less would be derelict.
The truth is that annexation will not end the debate about territory. The opposite is more likely. Israelis and Palestinians will still have competing claims, Israel will still lack internationally recognized boundaries, and the territorial aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain unresolved.
Along the way, annexation will badly degrade Israel's strategic environment by heightening tensions in the West Bank; worsening relations with Israel's treaty partner, Jordan; and turbocharging anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, the United Nations and other international institutions.
In the longer term, annexation could lead Israel's closest friends - especially allies in Washington and key capitals like London and Berlin - to abandon the position that its very presence in the West Bank was a legitimate outcome of its defensive operations in the Six-Day War of June 1967. While the steady growth of settlements has eroded the image of Israel as a "legal occupier" pending a negotiated peace, annexation would confirm to many the view of Israel as an "illegal occupier" whose actions prevent a negotiated peace. And annexation is sure to accelerate partisanship over Israel in U.S. politics and make it increasingly unlikely that a future Democratic nominee ever calls herself a Zionist.
Thankfully, a decision to annex West Bank territory is not a certainty. Even if Trump affirms his support for annexation, many actors abroad - Trump, the Palestinian leadership, key Arab states, even Biden - can affect Israel's choice. Domestically, Israel's security establishment can inject some realism into a debate that, surprisingly, is only beginning to focus on cost-benefit analysis. After reading polls showing that most Israelis don't support annexation, perhaps Netanyahu decides, as he has so often in the past, that prudence is the wiser course of action.
If, despite all this, Jerusalem proceeds with annexation, friends of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be put to the test. I will work to protect this vital partnership, even while condemning this senseless move, but that work will become immeasurably more difficult thanks to those who choose ideological gratification without tangible gain.
Satloff is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.