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Israel's election is a referendum on human rights

On Tuesday, Israelis went to the polls for the second time in less than six months. They have their embattled prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to thank for the repeated opportunities to exercise their franchise.

Exit polls in the Israeli election indicate a close race for Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party, which has been in turmoil since the prime minister was indicted on corruption charges. He’s facing off against center-left politician Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party. In an attempt to shore up support among his nationalist base, Netanyahu on Monday made a far-reaching campaign promise: to annex “all settlements” in the West Bank.

Perhaps this was a blustering overstatement designed to bolster support among a key constituency. But if Netanyahu follows through, it could have serious human rights implications for the region.

Firstly, Netanyahu and his right-wing backers almost certainly don’t want more Palestinian citizens of Israel. Annexation would then require putting the Palestinians of the West Bank in a kind of purgatory, explained Hilary Falb Kalisman, a professor of Israel and Palestine Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder. A Likud-led government would be “unlikely to annex areas that are majority Palestinian” so as to avoid threatening Israel’s Jewish majority, Kalisman explained. “Instead, the goal would be to annex territory, but to keep control over Palestinians without allowing them the benefits of Israeli citizenship, which they are unlikely to choose anyway.”

That means that Palestinians would essentially end up “legally and permanently governed by a foreign government” in which they could not participate, Kalisman said. In addition, “the more areas under Israeli control which exclude Palestinians, the more difficult daily life becomes. … Roads surrounding settlements and empty land are likely to be annexed as well. Palestinians would be prohibited from entering these areas, making it even more difficult to work, to go to school, to go shopping.”

The true extent of what Netanyahu is proposing remains unclear. In his initial statement, he said that he would enforce "Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea," but given the complex geopolitics of the region, that plan could realistically unfold a few different ways.

“Annexation has several implications depending on what it actually means on the ground,” says Nadim Shehadi, the director of The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University. “Is it Area C [a specific region of the West Bank that is almost entirely under Israeli control]? Is it the Jordan Valley? Is it the whole West Bank or just the settlements?”

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Through the uncertainty, though, one thing remains clear: Netanyahu’s plans would permanently affect the peace process. “Annexation will make a ‘two-state solution’ even harder to achieve than before,” says Shehadi. “It creates an institutional void with no framework for negotiations.” Diplomatic relations between the two governments could disappear, and the two-state solution that’s been on the table for decades could become an impossibility.

That loss may just be making official policy of what was practically a forgone conclusion anyway. As right-wing politicians have tightened their grip on Israeli politics in the two decades since the Second Intifada, the two-state solution has increasingly seemed, as Kalisman put it, like a “non-starter.” And because Israel enjoys such staunch support from the U.S., the country would almost certainly face few consequences internationally if it were to pursue control over the West Bank, “even though annexing territory seized in war is against international law,” per Kalisman.

For the Palestinians, though, annexation would be predictably catastrophic. The Palestinian Authority’s governing mandate “is predicated on the idea of a future state, and more concretely the Oslo Occords,” Kalisman explained, referring to the 1993 agreement which established peaceful negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The abandonment of the two-state solution even as a theoretical goal, then, “would likely lead to a breakdown in authority in the West Bank, and at the very least a refusal on the part of the Palestinian Authority to cooperate with Israel on security matters.”

West Bank annexation could also potentially unbalance Israel’s neighbor Jordan — and with it, the whole region. Writing in The Economist, Albert Wolf, the dean of the College of International Studies at the American University of Kurdistan, pointed out that mass protests would likely erupt among Jordan’s large Palestinian population. The demonstrations could be “comparable to those seen in Egypt and other countries during the Arab Spring,” Wolf argued.

Per Wolf, such protests could precipitate the fall of Jordan’s royal family, which has ruled the country for decades. King Abdullah II, a U.S. ally, has additionally played a key role in certain American diplomatic pursuits, opposing Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and offering sanctuary to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing violence in the country.

Netanyahu has apparently made the calculus that winning the election is more important than participating in any kind of meaningful peace process. If he’s successful, Kalisman said, the results would be “a worsening situation for Palestinians, a rise in non-government level condemnation of Israel and protests against it, and likely, more violence.”