The Israeli government may begin taking steps toward unilaterally annexing portions of the West Bank soon. This move would present a grave threat to any possibility of a future two-state outcome that allows Israelis and Palestinians to live in freedom and security, each in a state of their own. It would also shatter the paradigm that has governed resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. Israeli annexation would herald a new era of unilateralism, the consequences of which would be a policy shift on the Palestinian side of the equation as well.
Annexation is far from a foregone conclusion. Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, Arab leaders, former Vice President Joe Biden and nearly every Democrat in Congress have voiced concern or outright opposition. The Trump administration’s position is unclear, as it envisioned annexation in the context of a larger peace plan that the Israeli government seems more reluctant to endorse.
If annexation does occur, however, and it is recognized by the Trump administration, the two-state solution will stand on the precipice of irrelevance. In such a world, it will be critical to take steps to bolster its renewal and establish a new set of facts on the ground that shape a two-state environment. The most effective and meaningful response by U.S. supporters of a two-state solution — especially in Congress — is to advocate formal recognition of the state of Palestine.
Annexation would be an unmistakable sign that Israelis are moving away from two states. But no less significant would be the impact on Palestinians, who would no longer believe that a state of their own is achievable. Polling in the Palestinian territories already shows support for two states at its lowest point since Israelis and Palestinians began negotiating in 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords. The opposition is based not on the substance of an agreement, but in the lack of belief that it is possible in the face of 25-plus years of failure and the growth of Israeli settlements on land supposedly designated for a Palestinian state.
Unilateral Israeli annexation, designed to demonstrate to Palestinians that Israel will not be held hostage to a Palestinian veto over its borders and territory, would have a far more expansive effect. It would hasten the process of deterioration of Palestinian institutions toward further dysfunction and authoritarianism, as they would be increasingly be seen by Palestinians as tools for Israeli occupation, not preparation for statehood. Eventually, this lack of legitimacy would cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse.
Recognition of a Palestinian state would be a huge political boost to Palestinian supporters of two states by providing symbolic achievement of a long-desired national aspiration. It would boost the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy and forestall its collapse. U.S. recognition should make clear that while the final borders of Israel and Palestine must be negotiated between the parties, they should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed on land swaps, grounding U.S. policy in 50 years of precedent.
U.S. recognition would almost certainly cause most partners in Europe, who have thus far refrained from recognizing a Palestinian state, to follow. But even if a U.S. administration chose not to recognize Palestine, simply signaling to European countries that the United States would not oppose them taking this action could trigger a wave of international recognition that would boost Palestinians at a moment of despondency.
Recognition would also be an appropriate countermeasure to Israeli unilateralism that puts a two-state outcome at severe risk. Just as Israeli annexation is an attempt to skip negotiations and jump to the endpoint of recognition of Israeli territorial claims in the West Bank, recognition of a Palestinian state would be a similar leap to the endpoint of Palestinian goals in any negotiating process.
While recognition of Palestine may appear extreme at first glance, it actually constitutes the middle ground inside the Democratic Party in the wake of annexation. More conservative voices will argue that convincing Israel not to take annexation any further than it has, or even withdrawing President Trump’s recognition of what has taken place, would be sufficient. But this will merely give lip service without taking concrete action to save the two-state solution.
Progressives will argue that instead the United States should start putting conditions on the $3.8 billion it provides in security assistance to Israel every year, but that step would unnecessarily harm U.S. and Israeli security interests in the Middle East, wouldn’t really resonate inside Palestinian society and wouldn’t move either side closer to two states.
Ultimately, let’s hope that Israel makes the right decision and chooses not to unilaterally annex West Bank territory. But if it does, supporters of the two-state solution in Congress, as well as the many advocacy organizations, and Jewish and Arab community leaders who engage on this issue with the United States, should call for U.S. recognition of the state of Palestine as the best way to preserve any hope for a two-state solution in a new era of Israeli-Palestinian unilateralism.
Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security; he served on the State Department negotiating team on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.