Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, especially in a “no-deal” scenario, has often been described as an act of national self-harm by world leaders, foreign and domestic observers, and business chiefs.
Prompted by a controversial referendum in 2016, the British government officially left the EU in early 2020. At present, the two sides are supposed to be negotiating a new trade agreement at break-neck speed before the transition period expires at the end of the year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current push to annex up to 30 percent of the West Bank is an entirely different kettle of fish. However, on top of potentially bringing about international isolation and sparking a Palestinian uprising, annexation may also prove hugely costly and dangerous for Israel.
In fact, Brexit and Netanyahu’s plan have at least five characteristics in common.
Both Brexit and the proposed annexation of Palestinian territories are right-wing projects. One of the key slogans of the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum was the call to “take back control.”
Britain has a glorious past, the argument went, and if it were to break free of the shackles imposed on it by the EU, it could once again strike lucrative trade deals across the globe. Romanticized memories of the British Empire loomed large over the Brexit debate.
Welcome to the Britain’s self-inflicted post-Brexit unlevel playing field. Not so much take back control but abandon control and expose UK business to one-way free movement of goods. Telling that this is what now passes for good news. https://t.co/Fa7uoZIoTR
— Simon Nixon (@Simon_Nixon) June 12, 2020
In Israel, voices on the right have long called for the annexation of the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. Judea and Samaria, as the area is called in Jewish nationalist circles, are the site of several scenes from the Hebrew bible.
The nationalist Likud Party, led by Netanyahu, had long considered these territories to be part of the “whole land of Israel.” However, in the past 53 years, Israeli governments were reluctant to annex the area with its large Palestinian population for fear of international responses.
Tailwind from Trump
President Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, a few months after the Brexit referendum. Since then, he has repeatedly expressed his support for Britain leaving the EU and even criticized then Prime Minister Theresa May for not pursuing a harder form of Brexit in 2019.
Anti-Brexit campaigners in the UK fear that Trump wishes to use Britain’s weakened position in trade negotiations to pave the way for American farming and pharmaceutical companies into the British market.
In the Israeli context, Trump has lent his support to Netanyahu on several occasions, most notably by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and by declaring that he recognizes Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights – a territory captured by Israel from Syria in 1967 and formally annexed in 1981 (despite the opposition of the Reagan administration).
President Trump also published a peace plan that aligns very closely with Netanyahu’s aspirations and thus has no chance of ever being accepted by the Palestinian leadership. Trump’s support has helped Netanyahu’s image in recent election campaigns.
Meanwhile, it is widely assumed that the US president expects his position towards Israel to help him among evangelical voters in his November re-election bid.
A chief concern among pro-Brexit voters in 2016 was immigration. The “Leave” campaign capitalized on this, arguing that once out of the EU, Britain could pass its own laws and shape its own immigration policy.
However, when pressed on this issue, supporters of Brexit struggled to name any rules that the UK was incapable of passing while still an EU member. Indeed, the UK’s immigration policy had changed drastically in recent decades, despite its EU membership.
Israel meanwhile is already in full control of the territories Netanyahu seeks to annex. Over the years, Israel has established several Jewish settlements in the West Bank, even though the area’s final status remains disputed.
A legitimate question that can be posed to both the Israeli and the British government is whether these acts of asserting their sovereignty gives them any real advantages they do not already enjoy.
The Citizenship Conundrum
Both Netanyahu’s annexation and Brexit create a problem with the legal status of Palestinians in the West Bank and EU nationals who reside in the UK respectively.
Estimates regarding the number of EU nationals in Britain vary, but there are well over 2 million and possibly more than 3.5 million people whose status became much more precarious as a result of Brexit. The British government came under sharp criticism for how it has handled the fate of EU nationals but has at least established a pathway that European passport holders can follow if they wish to remain in the UK after the transition period.
In this case, Netanyahu is lagging far behind. A map outlining precisely which territories are to be annexed has yet to be published. As a result, there is growing uncertainty among Palestinians in the West Bank who do not know whether their home will or will not become part of Israel. This unease seems perfectly understandable bearing in mind Netanyahu has already indicated that any Palestinians in the territories annexed won’t be granted Israeli citizenship.
International Opposition and Domestic Divisions
The Netanyahu government’s declared intention to proceed with annexation in early July has been met with objections from several quarters.
The plan has been harshly condemned by King Abdullah of Jordan and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who declared he is no longer bound by the agreements signed with previous Israeli governments.
Democrat leaders in the US and the Russian government have indicated, separately, that annexation would be detrimental to any attempt to revive the peace process. The German foreign minister made a special visit to Israel to voice his concern and warn that other European Union states may go as far as to impose sanctions. Prominent British Jews published a letter saying it would not be possible for them to defend Israel if the annexation was to proceed.
Meanwhile, there has also been some domestic disquiet, with senior security officials grumbling that they haven’t been consulted. Public opinion in Israel is hardly enthusiastic. A recent poll has shown that only 34 percent of the population supports the move. A staggering 69 percent said that the government’s top priority should be tending to the economic crisis and high unemployment brought about by COVID-19.
Perhaps unexpectedly for foreign observers, there is opposition to annexation among some of the more hardline Jewish settlers in the West Bank. They fear that if Israel does annex parts of the West Bank now, it would be forced to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the remainder as envisaged in Trump’s peace plan.
Indications are that Netanyahu will be forced either to scale down significantly or postpone the annexation project.
There is less room for optimism regarding the UK and Brexit. Despite an unprecedented economic slowdown – the UK economy shrunk by 20 percent in April as a result of COVID-19 lockdown – Boris Johnson’s government seems intent on “getting Brexit done.” If no deal is concluded with the EU, Britain’s largest and nearest trading partner, the economic consequences will be dire.
Both the UK and Israel appear to be experimenting with a doctrine of national self-harm.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.