In the runup to the previous general election in Israel, in April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to annex all of the settlements in the West Bank, formally making them part of Israel proper. Netanyahu recently toyed with the idea of annexing the Jordan Valley before today’s election until the attorney general told him that he couldn’t. This tough talk on territorial seizures is, in part, intended as a quid pro quo with far-right parties to secure a law that would provide Netanyahu with immunity from prosecution for corruption.
While it might help Netanyahu with his legal problems, annexing any part of the West Bank will be injurious to Israel’s national security, because it could lead to a new era of isolation for the Jewish state unseen since its founding in 1948.
The two most obvious implications of the annexation of the West Bank or any of its constituent parts are the end of the peace process, and the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. However, annexation carries with it other dangers that have been overlooked and underexamined, starting with the destabilization of Jordan.
With the exception of the minor border alterations that were part of the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace deal, every alteration to the borders of the British protectorate of Transjordan and, later, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, has threatened to destabilize Israel’s neighbor to the east.
Three years after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the foundation of the state of Israel, Jordanian King Abdullah I was assassinated by a partisan of the former grand mufti of Jerusalem, nearly turning Jordan into a failed state. This resulted in a succession crisis between Abdullah’s sons, the future King Talal and Prince Naif. Talal’s reign proved to be erratic, with rumors circulating about his mental health. He subsequently abdicated the throne, allowing Prime Minister Tawfik Abu al-Huda to establish a regency until his son, Hussein, came of age to take the throne.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, the delicate demographic balance of Jordan was nearly turned upside down once again. A significant number of the Palestinians who had inhabited the West Bank fled to Jordan and Kuwait. This posed unenviable problems for the young King Hussein. It was not until Black September in 1970, when the Jordanian Armed Forces expelled the Palestinian fedayeen, which had been operating as a state-within-a-state, that King Hussein was able to reestablish his political supremacy within the kingdom.
Today, there is some dispute over how many Palestinians live in Jordan, suggesting that the official census figures have been manipulated. According to the 2015 census, 6.6 million of the kingdom’s 9.5 million residents are Jordanian, while there are only 634,000 Palestinians. However, other estimates suggest that the Palestinian population of Jordan is roughly 23 percent.
Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the downfall of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been overpredicted. Nearly every street demonstration has led some experts to predict that King Abdullah II would soon be overthrown. However, earlier this year, the king refused to extend the 1994 peace agreement’s 25-year territorial leases of some borderlands to Israel, in part because of domestic pressure.
It is difficult to predict the precise reaction of Jordan’s Palestinian population to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, but it would not be in Israel’s favor. Mass protests could erupt in Amman and throughout Jordan, comparable to those seen in Egypt and other countries during the Arab Spring (or, more recently, in Algeria and Sudan). Such protests could lead to the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy itself.
Similarly, another refugee crisis prompted by Palestinians fleeing from territory seized by Israel, like the refugee crises of the late 1940s and after the Six-Day War, could have the potential to scramble, if not entirely undo, Jordan’s byzantine and often fragile politics. The Hashemites’ traditional power base has been among East Bank Jordanians; an influx of Palestinians from the West Bank, who have traditionally been critical of the monarchy and its treatment of the Palestinians, could upend the domestic balance of power against the ruling family. (Jordan would not be the first Arab state to be destabilized because of a refugee problem. Many of Lebanon’s crises in the 20th century were the product of refugee crises.)
The dangers posed by annexation are not purely bilateral. Observers have not taken into account the potential interaction between a destabilized Jordan and a devastated Syria next-door. While it appears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has won the civil war, the fighting continues in Syria. If the Hashemites were forced from power, this could create another failed state and open a new power vacuum on Syria’s southern border.
This could in turn provide a window of opportunity for groups such as the Islamic State, as well as Palestinian nationalist groups such as Hamas, to establish a greater foothold and take aim at Israel. This would likely invite a response from groups such as Iran and Hezbollah to intervene in the area, extending and building upon their foothold in Syria and exacerbating the security dilemma throughout the region.
The fallout would also be felt beyond the Middle East. Israel’s burgeoning ties with some countries in Africa could be at risk, too. Despite his bona fides as a revisionist Zionist, one of the hallmarks of Netanyahu’s foreign policy has been to bring back former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s periphery strategy, whereby Israel would reach out to states on the periphery of the Middle East.
Beginning in the early 1970s, several African states cut off friendly ties with Israel in exchange for aid from oil-rich Arab states. However, Israel has now fully established ties with 11 countries in Africa; since 2016, Netanyahu has made multiple trips to Africa, including to Uganda, where his brother was killed during Israel’s 1976 raid on Entebbe Airport to rescue hijacked Israeli passengers.
Much of this desire to normalize (or restore) ties with Africa is driven by a desire to end decades of isolation and sell green and defense technology. However, annexing parts of the West Bank could jeopardize this new periphery strategy, which clearly has economic benefits for Israeli industries.
Chadian President Idriss Déby has clearly stated, “Our friendship to Israel does not replace our concerns on the Palestinian issue.” The Palestine Liberation Organization has observer status at the African Union, and nine states in Africa are also members of the Arab League. Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza prompted Mauritania to break ties with Israel in 2010, while terrorist attacks in Kenya by franchises of al Qaeda were attributed to the government’s lack of support for the Palestinian cause. This suggests that one of Netanyahu’s premier foreign-policy initiatives could fall apart if the next government annexes the Jordan Valley, Area C, or other parts of the West Bank.
Pundits writing on Arab-Israeli relations have for too long focused on the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But such prospects are dim at best, and the Trump administration has not done much to raise anyone’s hopes. The real danger lies elsewhere: in Netanyahu’s reckless expansionism and its potential to endanger Israel’s neighbors and upend the entire region. Netanyahu’s promises to annex the West Bank would do precisely that—undermining Israel’s security and destabilizing Jordan.