Ahead of first Trump meet, Netanyahu keeps his cards close to his chest
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Analysis

Ahead of first Trump meet, Netanyahu keeps his cards close to his chest

While new US administration expects to learn how Israel wants to advance the peace process, PM seems set to defend the status quo

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still airborne, making his way back to Jerusalem from a one-day visit to London, when the Knesset passed the so-called Regulation Law late Monday night.

Cynics could claim that Netanyahu deliberately delayed his departure from Heathrow in order to miss the vote, so that when the day comes and the International Criminal Court issues arrest warrants over this controversial law, the prime minister can argue that he did not vote for it.

Indeed, while Netanyahu had earlier on Monday expressed support for the controversial legislation, which retroactively legalizes West Bank outposts built on private Palestinian land, he has been very wary of it. On Monday, he said he was acting in the “national interest” in advancing the bill, but in the not too distant past he had still tried to bury it.

In 2012, during an earlier attempt to to pass the same law, Netanyahu threatened to fire every minister who voted in favor of it.

In late November of 2016, after the idea to “regulate” illegal West Bank outposts had resurfaced in the face of the looming evacuation of Amona, he reportedly argued it could lead Israeli leaders into the dock at the ICC.

Even on Sunday, after he himself announced plans to pass the bill in order to “normalize the status of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria once and for all and prevent recurrent attempts to harm the settlement enterprise,” he reportedly tried to postpone the vote until after his February 15 meeting with US President Donald Trump.

On Monday, however, after Israel’s envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, updated the White House, the prime minister gave the green light and the law was approved, in his absence, 60 to 52.

Why did Netanyahu discard his own declared concerns and back the contentious law?

For one, he knows it will almost certainly be overturned by the courts. He will have to weather a few days of heavy international criticism but he knows no Israeli would be tried in The Hague over legislation the country’s own legal system had stopped before it could be implemented.

Furthermore, the prime minister likely wanted to placate the right-wing’s anger over last week’s evacuation of Amona, a 20-year-old West Bank outpost that was built on private Palestinian land. That’s also why he announced the establishment of a new settlement in the West Bank and the construction of more than 6,000 new housing units in existing settlements.

Israeli settlers scuffle with security forces at the Amona outpost during an evacuation operation on February 1, 2017. (AFP/Jack GUEZ)
Israeli settlers scuffle with security forces at the Amona outpost during an evacuation operation on February 1, 2017. (AFP/Jack GUEZ)

Netanyahu is also trying to gauge the new US administration. No one knows what Trump really thinks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the settlement enterprise, and so the prime minister is pushing the envelope to see how far he can go with moves other countries say question Israel’s commitment to peace.

During a briefing to the traveling press in London, Netanyahu said he had made sure not to “surprise” the Americans about the Regulation Law, but insisted he did not ask them for permission. The White House was informed about the settlement expansion plans and the new law, he explained, but Jerusalem did not coordinate these moves with the administration.

Ahead of Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu next Wednesday, the US is not publicly taking a stand on the planned new West Bank housing or the Regulation Law. “That’ll obviously be a topic of discussion,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday, refusing to comment beyond that.

Recent statements from administration officials indicate that Trump disapproves of Israel building more settlements and tends to support a two-state solution.

“We don’t believe that the existence of current settlements is an impediment to peace,” Spicer had said Friday, “but I think the construction or expansion of existing settlements beyond the current borders is not going to be helpful moving forward.”

The website of the US Embassy to Israel has been updated recently to reflect that Dan Shapiro is no longer the ambassador, and that his deputy, Leslie Tsou, became Chargé d’Affaires ad interim on the day of Trump’s inauguration.

However, the embassy’s website still states that the US remains committed “to realizing the vision of a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state as the homeland of the Palestinian people, alongside the Jewish State of Israel.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile, keeps his cards close to the chest. During Monday’s meeting with his British counterpart, Theresa May, he vowed to “never give up on our quest for peace with all of our neighbors.” He acknowledged “challenges” but then spoke about “some new and interesting opportunities” that arose in the wake of “regional and global changes.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his British counterpart, Theresa May, in London on Monday, February 6, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his British counterpart, Theresa May, in London on Monday, February 6, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

It was unclear what exactly he had in mind. But unlike May, who reiterated the UK’s support for the two-state solution, Netanyahu failed to explicitly endorse it. During the briefing with reporters that followed his 10 Downing Street talks, the prime minister said his position has not changed, but also painstakingly avoided any reference to Palestinian statehood or even of the idea of two states for two peoples.

He does note that he has not changed his longstanding position — that any peace agreement be conditioned on Palestinian recognition of Israel as the Jewish state and an ongoing Israeli security presence in all of the West Bank.

Peace has remained elusive for one reason, the prime minister said Tuesday during a meeting with his Belgian counterpart, Charles Michel, back home in Jerusalem: the persistent Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any boundaries. “This is the core of our particular conflict,” Netanyahu said. “I look forward to the day when we have Palestinians who are willing to recognize, finally, the Jewish state. That will be the beginning of peace and a great step forward to achieving it.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with his Belgian counterpart Charles Michel, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with his Belgian counterpart Charles Michel, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on February 6, 2017. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Since Trump won the US elections, Israel politicians from the left and the right have argued that Netanyahu will now be forced to specify what he really envisions for the future of the conflict with the Palestinians.

His right-wing coalition partners (or rivals) expect him to publicly abandon the two-state solution and declare his intention to annex parts or all of the West Bank. “Netanyahu for the first time will have to say to President Trump what he wants. ‏The new administration wants to hear our vision,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

The left, too, believes Netanyahu will no longer be able to hide his true intentions and will have to clearly state what policies he intends to pursue now that he’s no longer pressured by a US president who knew exactly what he wanted Israel to do.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, left, speaks with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset session marking 18 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 16, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Tzipi Livni and Naftali Bennett at a Knesset session in October 2013 (Flash90)

With Trump likely to give Israel more leeway than Obama, Jerusalem will have to lay down its positions, Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni said recently. “If Israel can really do whatever it wants — it’s time that Israel decide what it wants.” The government will no longer be able to portray the White House as the “bad cop” coercing decisions opposed by its right-wing base, she said.

Netanyahu and his aides are preparing feverishly for next Wednesday’s meeting in the Oval Office. The Israeli delegation wants Iran to top the agenda, but Trump and his advisers will also seek to discuss the peace process and learn how exactly Israel wants to move forward. Even Netanyahu’s own defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, has argued that Israel needs to coordinate its position on settlements with the new administration. The key to the future of the settlements lies in “understandings with the United States, not only our desire,” Liberman said in early December. “We’re not in a vacuum.”

For now, Netanyahu is maintaining radio silence on what he plans to tell the new president. It’s possible that he will present a new paradigm for the Middle East, perhaps adjusting or even abrogating his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, in which he accepted the idea of a demilitarized Palestinian state.

More likely, however, Netanyahu will repeat his in-principle endorsement of the two-state solution, with the caveat that it can only be implemented on the ground when the Palestinians radically change their approach and agree to make the concessions he requires of them.

Israel will never cease pursuing peace, Netanyahu can be expected to say during the public part of the White House meeting. But given the Palestinians’ recalcitrance and the turmoil sweeping the Middle East, he will probably add behind closed doors, there’s no deal to be had in foreseeable future.

In other words, even in the age of Donald Trump, Netanyahu’s immediate goal seems to be the maintenance of the status quo.

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