Shadow Government

Trump Sounds Like Obama on Israeli Settlements

In the hall of mirrors that is Middle East peacemaking, this seeming rebuke of Israel may, in fact, have been coordinated with Netanyahu after all.

TOPSHOT - A Palestinian man sits near Israel's controversial separation barrier dividing the Palestinian neighbourhood of Al-Tur in the Israeli annexed East Jerusalem with the West Bank, on February 11, 2016. / AFP / THOMAS COEX        (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A Palestinian man sits near Israel's controversial separation barrier dividing the Palestinian neighbourhood of Al-Tur in the Israeli annexed East Jerusalem with the West Bank, on February 11, 2016. / AFP / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

It was too good to last.

For weeks following President Donald Trump’s surprise election triumph, advocates for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank were hailing the dawn of a new age. Some bandied about proposals for annexation of portions of the West Bank. Others heralded the end of the era of the two-state solution.

Many asserted that the new administration would desist from criticizing Israeli settlement activity, as the Obama administration was wont to do. In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, legislation advanced that would legalize dozens of outposts built illegally on private Palestinian property — a partial compensation for the court-ordered evacuation of one such outpost, Amona.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggled to contain the enthusiasm of these voices. He urged them to tone down the celebrating, give the new administration time to establish its policies, and above all, allow him to travel to Washington for his first meeting with the new president without undercutting his ability to reach a common understanding. He felt certain that he and his new counterpart, given time and space, would reach arrangements that most settlement advocates would find satisfactory.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the inauguration. A Trump team that was willing to speak out, at times off-the-cuff and with outrageous results, on a wide range of foreign policy issues, went noticeably silent on issues surrounding Israelis and Palestinians. (One notable exception was the president-elect’s call for a veto of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 criticizing Israeli settlements, which the Obama administration abstained on, allowing it to pass.)

In Israel, more questions began to come up about the Trump administration’s approach. Would Rex Tillerson, a secretary of state from the energy industry with deep ties to Arab governments and no record on Israel, sign on to a policy that put a two-state solution on ice? How about James Mattis, a secretary of defense who had served as commander of U.S. Central Command, and who had spoken publicly about the way the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects U.S. standing in the Arab world?

Eyebrows rose as well when the president tapped his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, as a point person on working toward Middle East peace, or “the ultimate deal,” as Trump called it. Uncertainty became the only certainty, even as settler representatives decamped to Washington to take part in the inauguration festivities.

In the first two weeks of the Trump administration, White House spokespeople had little to say on Israeli-Palestinian matters. Despite two settlement announcements, totaling some 5,500 housing units, the administration delivered no condemnations, no calls for restraint, and only quiet references to future conversations between Trump and Netanyahu.

A reasonable supposition took hold — that Netanyahu, under pressure from settler leaders as the long-delayed evacuation of Amona finally took place — had authorized these announcements, which focused on building inside settlement blocs, after prior coordination with Trump. That could explain the administration’s laconic response.

And then came Thursday: Boom! The Jerusalem Post‘s Michael Wilner reported that the White House wanted Israel to cease settlement announcements that are “unilateral” and “undermining” of Trump’s effort to forge Middle East peace. A senior administration official told the Post that the White House was not consulted on the recent settlement announcements.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer went on to describe the “unchanged” U.S. desire for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. While the existence of settlements may not be an impediment to peace, he said, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

What does this one small episode, so early in the Trump administration, tell us? It does not tell us whether, or how hard, or how successfully, the administration will work to advance peace talks or a two-state solution, although it suggests that the White House cares. It does tell us, however, that the 50-year U.S. opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, as a negative factor in the search for peace, is a widely understood American interest that does not fluctuate wildly from one administration to the next.

But wait. In the hall of mirrors that is Middle East peacemaking, this seeming rebuke of Israel may, in fact, have been coordinated with Netanyahu after all. Time will tell, but there is strong reason to believe that Netanyahu, having lost the pressure from Obama as his excuse to restrain the most right-leaning members of his coalition, whose annexation dreams he knows will be harmful to Israel’s interests, actually needed the very same from Trump. Thursday’s announcement may have been exactly what Netanyahu asked for.

The prospect of Israel ceasing to be both a Jewish and a democratic state, the risk of instability that could threaten Jordan if Palestinians despair of any chance at statehood (note that King Abdullah met with Trump on Thursday), the complications a shutdown in efforts to achieve a two-state solution would cause in U.S. relations with Arab states — these are only some of the reasons that the Trump administration, after only two weeks, has landed in roughly the same place as each of its predecessors on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

The goal of achieving a negotiated two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the opposition to unilateral acts that could impede it, were not some hobbyhorses of the Obama administration. They are deeply rooted American interests that have shaped — and, it appears, will continue to shape — U.S. policy. In this case, maybe in close coordination with Israel.

President Trump, welcome to the Middle East peace funhouse.

Photo credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration.

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