The modern State of Israel was born in the aftermath of World War II, alongside what is now known as the rules-based international order — a liberal global system created in large part by the United States and defined by a commitment by numerous countries to respect certain guidelines governing political and military conduct.
Today, both Israel and the rules-based order face serious, existential threats — threats that have been significantly exacerbated by the actions of Donald Trump’s administration.
This dual peril is embodied in much of the current American administration’s Israel program, most recently Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that reversed a longstanding U.S. position that Israeli settlements are inconsistent with international law.
While the Trump administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will both eventually come to an end, the U.S.-Israel relationship may be irrevocably harmed in the interim.
The administration’s new stance on settlements and its greenlighting of West Bank annexation fly in the face of one of the central tenets of the postwar system, namely the concept of territorial integrity and the idea that land cannot be unilaterally acquired through the force of arms. This doctrine has informed American policy under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and it has guided the American response to matters far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Notably, the liberal international order has always been difficult for Israelis. From day one, it established an expectation that Israel will play by the rules in a region where others routinely fail to respect them.
Yet even according to Israel’s challenging position, there is no case to be made that unilateral annexation serves the Jewish state’s interests. To the contrary, annexation of the West Bank will endanger Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
When Trump legitimizes settlements and annexation, he is ostensibly sacrificing universal principles upon the altar of Israel’s security. But far from leaving Israel better off, Trump’s approach is actually creating a reality that is less safe for Israel.
Some members of the Knesset are now focused on seizing the “historic opportunity” presented by the Trump administration’s settlements policy and are moving to formally absorb the Jordan Valley. This is an easy place for annexation to begin: Israelis generally view the Jordan Valley as a source of security rather than political or religious fulfillment.
Nonetheless, annexing even one inch of West Bank land anywhere in the occupied territories will fundamentally change the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. It will pose a serious risk to vital security cooperation by making it abundantly clear to the Palestinian Authority that its raison d’etre of achieving a two-state solution is, and always has been, a farce. Popular violence may become difficult for the PA to contain; already, a Day of Rage on Nov. 26 as a response to Pompeo’s announcement left dozens of Palestinians injured in clashes with Israeli forces.
While such a change in U.S. policy could be revoked by a future administration, it will be nearly impossible to recover the political capital that will be lost in the interim. Moreover, annexation is unlikely to stop at the Jordan Valley. While initial land grabs may be justified on pragmatic terms, Jordan Valley annexation will only whet the appetite of more extreme players in the Knesset.
Far from leaving Israel better off, Trump’s approach is actually creating a reality that is less safe for Israel.
For over 50 years, West Bank annexation has remained on the fringes of Israeli political discourse. However, due to the lethal combination of Trump administration’s repudiation of the American-backed liberal order and Netanyahu’s legal troubles, annexation has moved into the political mainstream in Israel, even though only a minority of Israelis support full annexation.
The Trump administration’s reversal of previous bipartisan policy on settlements has unilaterally removed the most significant deterrent to annexation. At the same time, Netanyahu is in survival mode, desperately clinging to his office by whatever means he deems necessary to hold on to power.
Until now, even without the threat of American pressure, most Israeli leaders were relatively circumspect about upending the status quo in the West Bank. That might have been an accurate characterization of Netanyahu’s own conduct before the Israeli justice system began closing in on him.
Facing indictments in three corruption cases, the embattled prime minister has been trying to trade annexation for immunity from prosecution. To his more centrist colleagues in Benny Gantz’s Kachol Lavan party, Netanyahu has offered up the potential for Jordan Valley annexation.
To those on the far right, he has made even more expansive promises, including extending Israeli sovereignty to settlements across the territories regardless of whether they are “consensus” settlements in blocs close to the Green Line or far-flung outposts deep in the West Bank.
And Pompeo’s announcement on settlements may carry negative ramifications well beyond Israel’s borders.
Cynical leaders with revisionist agendas in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing may seek to abuse the precedent set by the new American position. Indeed, when the Trump administration recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan earlier this year, Russian officials were quick to cite U.S. inconsistency on territorial integrity as justification for the annexation of Crimea.
By retreating from the traditional outlook that West Bank settlements contravene international law, the United States hurts its ability to take a firm stand against Iranian, Russian or Chinese aggression in their own respective backyards. That is not good news for Israel, which has to contend with a long-term Russian and Iranian presence in Syria.
Closer to home, the U.S. is surrendering any shred of credibility it might have retained as an honest Israeli-Palestinian broker. Perhaps that doesn’t matter to the Trump administration, which has no serious peace proposal to offer. But it will make things incredibly difficult for a future administration that may seek to re-establish contact with the Palestinians and restore the pre-Trump order.
Despite offering a veneer of commitment to Israel, the current White House is actually shaping an environment, both in the Middle East and internationally, that is less stable and less safe for the Jewish state.
Netanyahu and his allies on the Israeli right are acting as though there are no restraints on their behavior. That assessment may be correct as long as Trump is president, but at some point down the line, power will inevitably change hands in Washington, and when it does, a Democratic president may end up sparring with an Israel whose policies have been shaped by the Trump administration’s largesse and its pro-settler leanings.
The more Israel follows Trump’s lead in casting aside the rules-based order in favor of a short-sighted annexationist and pro-settlement agenda, the greater the damage will be.