The US has toned down settlement rhetoric

There’s a new West Bank settlement and nobody seems all that concerned

The first caravan is placed on the grounds of the new Amichai settlement for evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost on February 21, 2018. (Courtesy: Amona evacuees)
The first caravan is placed on the grounds of the new Amichai settlement for evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost on February 21, 2018. (Courtesy: Amona evacuees)

Two months ago, Israeli families started moving into Amichai, the first new West Bank settlement built in almost 20 years. The settlement will house families from the Amona outpost, which was closed after the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that it was built on private Palestinian land. From the time construction began last year, the United States has remained silent on this new development. Most notably, a United States envoy (including President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner) arrived to Israel the day after Amichai construction began in 2017, and made no official statement on the topic. The Foreign Ministers of Germany and France also made no mention of the new settlement during their meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 26, 2018, the day Amichai was inaugurated. This muted response to Amichai’s construction may signal a new shift in United States, and perhaps European, settlement policy.

United States policy towards West Bank settlements has evolved since the end of the Six Day War in June 1967. After the war, Israelis began moving into the recently captured West Bank for religious and economic reasons. In part because the United States had assumed that this area (and other recently captured territories) would be held as a “deposit” by Israel to be returned to the Arab states in exchange for peace, it initially declared these settlements to be illegal under international law and an obstacle to achieving peace.

The United States changed its policy in 1982, when President Ronald Reagan concluded that settlements were not illegal, but only represented an obstacle to peace. Successive presidential administrations continued this policy, and, in 2004, President George W. Bush allegedly developed an unwritten settlement framework with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Pursuant to this understanding, Israel agreed that it would not build new settlements in the West Bank, and in return, the United States would silently accept Israeli construction of new buildings within existing settlements.

President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 altered this status quo, as he declared that settlement construction in the West Bank was “illegitimate,” and forcefully pushed Israel to stop all construction, or as he reportedly said, “not a single brick.” This pressure led to a public confrontation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who insisted that the United States continue to follow the Bush-Sharon framework. The two sides eventually agreed that all settlement construction would be halted for 10 months in order to allow for a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace dialogue, however this dialogue soon proved unsuccessful.

Since his election in 2016, President Trump has sought to reverse President Obama’s settlement policy. Three weeks into the new term, the administration announced, “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.” This statement clearly rejected the Obama policy and showed a willingness to return to the Bush-Sharon understating by implicitly stating that construction within existing settlements was not an issue. Interestingly, the statement also concluded that new settlements were “not helpful” to peace, which represented a change from the post-Reagan policy that settlements are “obstacles” to peace.

This rhetorical shift raised the question of whether President Trump sought a new policy towards new settlement construction in the West Bank. In the following weeks, President Trump made only a few other remarks about settlements, which did not explicitly refer to new settlement construction. For example, during a press conference President Trump asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” and in an interview with Israel Hayom he said that settlements “don’t help the process” and are not “a good thing for peace.” Consequently, it appeared that President Trump wanted Israel to stop new settlement construction, but also sought to downplay the negative effects such construction could have on the peace process.

Given this background, the muted reaction to Amichai carries more significance because it may signal that President Trump is willing to silently acquiesce to new settlement construction in the future. Amichai represents only one example of how the Trump administration will react to the construction of new settlements, and it would be wrong to make a broader conclusion on United States policy at this point. However, if the United States remains silent following future settlement construction, it would represent a significant policy shift with unknown effects on the broader peace process.

Professor Zaki Shalom is a Senior Teacher at Ashkelon Academic College, and member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Ben-Gurion Research Institute at Ben-Gurion University. He has published extensively on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the role of the superpowers in the Middle East, and Israel’s struggle against Islamic terror. His work has also focused on the study of Israel’s nuclear option, both in historical and contemporary perspectives.

Jonathan Mintzer, an attorney, is a research intern at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv where he primarily researches Israel-United States relations.

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