Donald Trump’s grandiose pre-election promises notwithstanding, the new president is starting to make it fairly clear that he will neither quickly move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem nor give Israel an entirely free rein on the Palestinian question.
Trump and his foreign policy team emphatically seem more inclined to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital than the last administration. They evidently also do not share Barack Obama’s “not-one-brick” policy that condemned Israel for every single housing unit built outside the pre-1967 lines.
Indeed, in its first cautious statements on Israeli settlements, the Trump White House seems to be deviating substantially from the consistent position all previous US administrations — that settlement expansions are an obstacle to peace and need to stop.
And yet, the Israeli far-right’s jubilation over Trump’s anticipated Israel policy might turn out to be exaggerated.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday. The new administration “has not taken an official position on settlement activity,” he stressed, adding that Trump looks forward to discussing the issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their February 15 meeting in Washington.
Some hawks took this statement as a victory. Eugene Kontorovich, a right-leaning American-Israeli international law professor, said it signaled “a huge change of policy” since the US now “broadly accepts all building within settlements,” including in outlying West Bank communities outside of blocs.
While the White House might not embrace new settlements — as Netanyahu pledged to build this week to compensate the evicted settlers of Amona — the vast majority of construction over the Green Line takes place within already existing communities, Kontorovich argued.
“Since all building for 20 years has been within existing lines, and all planned building is within existing lines, this is as big an authorization as it gets,” he posited.
Such confidence seems, at best, premature.
Despite Jerusalem’s pledge not to surprise the White House, this week’s announcement of an additional 3,000 housing units in existing settlements and of plans to build an entirely new one were not coordinated in advance with the administration, a senior official in Netanyahu’s office told The Times of Israel. It remains to be seen how Trump will talk about the settlements once he forms a coherent position based on deliberations with his advisers and his interlocutors in the Arab world.
Much will depend on the president’s February 15 meeting with Netanyahu at the White House. Maybe the prime minister will be able to convince Trump that it’s in Israel’s interest to build as much as possible, across the entire West Bank. But maybe he won’t even attempt to do so.
It’s possible that Netanyahu, a professed opponent of a one-state solution, will explain to Trump that in a week in which his right-wing government had to demolish a 20-year-old settlement because of a court order, he needed to authorize extensive new construction elsewhere in the West Bank. His political survival depended on it, the prime minister might argue. But now that the dust has settled, he will slow down the pace of settlement expansion, especially outside the blocs, to safeguard the option for a future demilitarized Palestinian state.
Trump will likely allow Israel to build in the settlement blocs, and perhaps occasionally outside, and continue to vow to move the embassy at an opportune time — as previous presidents did — without actually doing it. And as he starts discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with world leaders and diplomats in the US State Department, the new president might eventually embrace the idea of a two-state solution, if he hasn’t already done so.
Allowing Israel to strengthen communities that are generally assumed to become part of Israel in any conceivable peace agreement, while limiting growth of outlying settlements, would also seem to be in line with Trump’s declared intention to reach a Palestinian peace deal.
An Israeli-Palestinian agreement “can only be negotiated directly between the two parties,” the White House stated after the Trump-Netanyahu phone call last Sunday. It is hard to imagine the US trying to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians while encouraging Israel, even by silent assent, to build settlements across the West Bank. While the administration does not view existing Israeli settlements as an obstacle to peace — there are ways to deal with them in a final peace agreement — Trump has never disavowed the two-state solution.
Trump’s disinclination to quickly relocate the embassy, paired with his spokesman saying the White House will “consult with” the State Department and other “stakeholders” — probably the leaders of Arab states — suggests that Trump might soon align himself with the rest of the international community in endorsing the two-state formula.
Even some settler leaders understand Trump might not be everything they had hoped for. “We need to understand that the US has interests of its own, which don’t always go along with our interests,” said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group for Jewish communities in the West Bank.
Many of those who advise the president on Middle East affairs — people like Jared Kushner, Jason Dov Greenblatt and David Friedman — know the history of the conflict well and are very sympathetic to Israel and the settlement movement.
“If you look at the vice president and some of the cabinet members — they all are strong supporters, some of whom have even reached deep into their pockets and donated to institutions in Judea and Samaria,” Revivi said. “But between that and the complete adoption of the position of the [settlement movement] or the Israeli government is still a big difference.”
Will Trump adopt a version of the 2004 Bush letter?
Trump is always good for a surprise, so Israeli leaders would be well advised to prepare for all eventualities. The new president will certainly continue to proclaim ironclad support for the Jewish state, but decision-makers in Jerusalem should not be caught off guard were he suddenly to announce support for a two-state solution and urge a freeze of settlement expansions outside the larger blocs.
Similar to what George W. Bush did in his 2004 letter to then prime-minister Ariel Sharon, Trump could declare that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949” — a de facto recognition that the settlement blocs will remain under Israel sovereignty — while at the same time reasserting that the US “supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent.”
Or he might — after a bid to restart peace talks inevitably fails — grow frustrated, move the embassy to Jerusalem, and tell Netanyahu to do whatever he wants in the West Bank.
But given the cautious statements from White House officials over the last few days, the former scenario seems much more likely.