President Trump and the Art of the ‘Ultimate’ Israel-Palestine Peace Deal

The two-state solution is not lost for the incoming administration. But Trump will have to pick his battles on settlements wisely.


Donald Trump described an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as “the ultimate deal.” As his administration takes shape and begins to look at the problems it will inherit from President Obama, it would do well to avoid the mistakes of the outgoing administration that doomed its attempt at Middle East peacemaking. Even Obama supporters should use this moment to reflect on a key question: Why have eight years of intensive diplomacy led to little or no results at all?

Obama’s policy was set on his second full day in office, Jan. 22, 2009, with the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace. That decision ushered in a strategy heavily focused on Israeli settlements rather than on encouraging practical steps to improve the security and livelihood of the people it supposedly endeavored to help. The administration immediately demanded an absolute freeze on Israeli housing construction not only in the entire West Bank, including in the major blocks that Israel will obviously keep in any peace agreement, but also in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem.

This was a precondition for peace negotiations, Mitchell and Obama said, because settlements were gobbling up land and closing the window for a future negotiation that would partition territory between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The strategy, however, was blind to both the facts and their implications on the ground. Since no Israeli government will agree to stop Jews from building homes in their capital, and with the Palestinian leadership reluctant to negotiate even under these far-reaching terms, peace talks never got off the ground in Obama’s first term.

What did the administration learn from all of this? Not much. A repeated effort led by Secretary of State John Kerry four years later — driven by similar logic — predictably ended once again in failure.

Developments that have had massive influence on Israeli public opinion, like the deteriorating prospects for peace in Gaza despite removal of all Israeli settlements there, were viewed from the White House and the State Department as irrelevant. Instead, the Obama administration focused on the construction of homes as the primary threat to a negotiated peace. Just two months ago, a State Department spokesman said “Israelis must ultimately decide between expanding settlements and preserving the possibility of a peaceful two state solution.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the “occupation” the State Department keeps calling unsustainable, it is past time to reexamine basic assumptions that have guided the U.S. pursuit of a peace agreement over the past eight years. A series of American administrations have dedicated endless efforts to reach that two-state solution — Bill Clinton did it, as did George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, and likewise Barack Obama and John Kerry. None acted as if they believed the two-state solution was dead or dying, despite comments like Kerry’s in 2013 that in a year or two hopes of a settlement would be “over.” Nor does the State Department today, despite its warnings of impending doom.

The bright side is that despite all that doomsday rhetoric, and despite Obama’s failure to secure his goal of a long-term freeze of settlement construction, not much has changed in the status quo during his two terms. A careful look into the numbers shows that neither the population balance between Jews and Palestinians, nor the options for partition in the West Bank have materially changed.

Here is the breakdown on what changed during Obama’s term in office. According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, outside the five major block townships, a total of 6,818 housing units were approved for construction in West Bank settlements between January 2009 and June 2016. That would suggest a population increase of up to 34,000 people, assuming five people per unit. A separate analysis of voter registration data between February 2009 and March 2015 shows an increase of approximately 20,000 residents in the 70 settlements that are outside the major blocks, averaging about 4 percent growth per year.

While it is difficult to get an exact picture of population growth in the West Bank settlements, the ranges are clear. Israeli population in the settlements is growing, but at a rate that reflects mostly births in families already there, and not in-migration of new settlers.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian population is also growing. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the Palestinian population of the West Bank, excluding Jerusalem, has increased from 2.1 million in mid-2009 to 2.5 million in mid-2016, thus growing at close to 3 percent a year. That means that in comparative terms, the demographic balance between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank has changed very little since Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu’s entry to office.

Considering all that data, the working assumptions guiding Obama’s policy — as well as the administration’s alarmist predictions — were simply and flatly wrong. Settlement expansion is not speedily gobbling up the West Bank, nor has it killed off chances for peace.

Nor is the status quo about to fray. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now in his fourth term in office, is heading the most right-wing government Israel has had since its creation. But even under this hawkish coalition, Israel isn’t implementing policies of either rapid settlement expansion or abrupt annexation of tracts of additional land. And if the current right-wing government isn’t doing so, no one will.

So why is this hawkish Israeli government acting with restraint? In previous unity governments, this policy could have been attributed to centrist coalition members like Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, or Dan Meridor. But in the current cabinet, the buck has nowhere to stop but at Netanyahu’s own desk. One possibility is that the prime minister is actually opposed to any game-changing construction, because he believes it would act against Israel’s long-term interests.

A second possibility may be that U.S. and European pressure has had a greater effect than usually believed in holding Netanyahu back. This is exactly what Netanyahu keeps telling his right-wing constituents, when settler leaders complain of limitations placed on construction permits. They may or may not believe it, and it is very hard to know whether it is true.

A third potential reason for the limited settlement expansion is rarely mentioned, but worth some thought. Perhaps the moderate construction figures in the settlements are less a matter of dovish policy and more a product of low market demand. As the decades have passed and settling the West Bank grew to be a heavily contentious issue, most Israelis could have simply lost any appetite to undertake the difficulties involved with actually living and owning property there. The population growth in Israeli settlements largely comes from new births, not from migration by Israelis choosing to move to a settlement. While a small number of ideological settlers remain a well-funded, well-organized political force, many of the actual residents of settlements today choose to live there for mundane financial reasons. Given the choice, many may have actually preferred raising their children in cities inside the Green Line, such as Ra’anana or in Tel Aviv– as do their representatives in the Knesset, Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

Under a Trump administration, the extent of U.S. influence on constraining settlement expansion could soon become clear. It will depend on whether Trump decides to ignore settlements altogether and give Israel a free hand, as he told the Daily Mail he would in one campaign interview. Or perhaps he will adopt the approach of the last Republican president, George W. Bush — who agreed with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that settlements could grow in population but not in physical size.

If Trump wields U.S. influence wisely, he could well affect Israeli settlement policy. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently that if the incoming administration adopts the Bush-Sharon policy, “we need to take that and not build outside the [settlement] blocks.”

The bottom line is this: Over the past eight years, Israeli settlements have grown at a slow but steady rate, not the huge and dangerous expansion Obama has been warning us about. As Obama’s presidency comes to an end, the status quo in 2016 has not significantly changed from 2008. It is impossible to prove that there was a real opportunity for peace when Obama took office in 2009, given Israeli security worries and Palestinian political paralysis. But if there was, the Obama administration threw it away by obsessing about one single issue: settlements.

The Trump administration should discourage Israel from investing in and populating isolated settlements, as there is simply no strategic logic for doing so. But far more important would be to focus on the final status issues that actually matter most — like the so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, and security in areas which Hamas or even the Islamic State may try to seize in the future. Those issues remain the fundamental barriers to negotiating a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

If President-elect Trump focuses on quick wins once he takes office, he will find that Israeli-Palestinian peace is less “the ultimate deal” than an impossible dream. The better course for the new American leader would be to put an end to dreaming and instead seek pragmatic changes that can improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. Critics may call this “small ball,” but repeated efforts prove that peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be built step by step — not by searching for new dramas on the White House lawn.

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