Though politically challenging, new settlement curb likely a win-win for Netanyahu

Publicly committing to restrain West Bank construction seems like a major concession. But the new framework prevents clashes with both Trump and the settlers, and is actually in line with the PM’s strategic outlook

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

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, hold a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, hold a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Israel’s announcement of a new policy of restraint in settlement expansion was well-orchestrated.

On Thursday morning, during a meeting with the Slovak president, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that later in the day the cabinet would greenlight a new West Bank settlement for the evacuees of Amona, an illegal outpost dismantled in February. “I promised at the outset that we would build a new community. I believe that I first gave that promise back in December and we will uphold it today,” he said.

At 10:25 p.m., the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the cabinet had indeed decided, in a unanimous vote, to create the first new officially sanctioned West Bank settlement in some 25 years. The announcement came just in time to make the Friday morning newspapers.

But once the papers’ deadlines had passed — at 1:21 a.m. — Israeli reporters were informed that the government had also decided to “significantly restrain” the expansion of settlements beyond their current boundaries, in a nod to the US administration’s concerns regarding settlement construction.

The timing of that announcement guaranteed that no newspaper would mention that important caveat in its reports on the first new settlement in decades, thus dramatically decreasing the chance of it becoming a topic for discussion at Shabbat dinner tables around the country on Friday evening.

Israel’s “new policy,” as the government itself called it, is a far cry from the “not one brick policy” of former US president Barack Obama, who vehemently opposed any settlement construction beyond the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem neighborhoods that will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any conceivable peace agreement.

Indeed, the new arrangement allows Israel, in theory, to expand any settlement it wishes, anywhere in the West Bank, under the condition that the construction does not expand an existing settlement’s “footprint.” The cabinet also said that no new settlements — besides the one to compensate the evacuees of Amona, announced earlier on Thursday — would be built.

Likud ministers on Friday morning defended the new policy, stressing that no settlement would be uprooted and that Israel would be allowed to build anywhere in its eternal united capital of Jerusalem. That was to be expected, since it was the leader of their party who was behind the new policy.

But even the pro-settlement Yesha Council accepted the new framework without protest. “The understandings reached between the government of Israel and the US administration allow for the continuation of settlement construction in all communities in Judea and Samaria, in addition to the establishment of a new community for the residents of Amona,” the group said in a statement.

New prefabricated homes are seen under construction in the West Bank between the Israeli outpost of Amona and the settlement of Ofra (background), north of Ramallah, on January 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
New prefabricated homes are seen under construction in the West Bank between the Israeli outpost of Amona and the settlement of Ofra (background), north of Ramallah, on January 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Gamble or gain?

On the face of it, the new policy is a major concession on Netanyahu’s part. The prime minister agreed to significantly curb construction in the territories, just weeks after he declared that no government had done more for the settlement enterprise than this one. He did so, his office said, “out of consideration of President Trump’s position.”

Some right-wingers indeed mourned the agreement, disappointed that Donald Trump had failed to materialize as the pro-settler messiah they had imagined he would be. Left-wing pundits agreed, saying that if Obama had forced such a policy on Israel he would have been accused of being anti-Semitic.

The prime minister routinely insists that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace. Trump disagrees. He said as much in his February 10 interview with the Israel Hayom daily. “They [settlements] don’t help the process. I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” he told the paper.

As of Friday morning, this difference of opinion found expression in an explicit policy directive with the blessing of the cabinet. The new policy could be viewed as the first tiny ray of daylight between Netanyahu’s government and the Trump administration. It might also pose a serious threat to the prime minister’s political standing. As of this writing, his main rival on the right, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, had not publicly commented on the new policy. Other members of his nationalist Jewish Home party, however, have not hidden their disappointment.

In recent months, Netanyahu has heaped praise on Trump and his administration. The Israeli leader’s unadulterated adulation for the new president took him as far as tweeting out praise for Trump’s plan to build a border wall with Mexico — leading to a diplomatic crisis with that country — and playing down concerns over the administration’s unfortunate International Holocaust Memorial Day statement that omitted mention of Jewish suffering and lax response to rising anti-Semitism in the US.

By so emphatically embracing Trump, Netanyahu risked alienating much of the American Jewish community and half of the US population. He did so presumably thinking the president would pay him back in kind and adopt his hawkish views on Iran and grant him free rein on the Palestinian issue.

On Iran, the US administration and the government in Jerusalem are still exactly on the same page. But when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and particular the question of West Bank settlement construction, Trump and Netanyahu are now officially at odds.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting following the death of minister Uri Orbach, who passed away at the age of 54. February 16, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (L) and Prime Minister Netanyahu at a cabinet on February 16, 2015. (Haim Zach/GPO)

And yet, the new policy might turn out to be a win-win for Netanyahu. For a start, despite a not insignificant difference of opinion on settlements, he avoided major friction with the White House — a dramatic difference from his relationship with the Obama administration.

Secondly, reining in settlement construction is actually in line with Netanyahu’s strategic and ideological outlook on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite his public comments, he is no advocate of unfettered settlement growth. Although he has in recent weeks avoided speaking about a two-state solution, he does oppose a unitary state.

“I don’t want to incorporate two million Palestinians as citizens of Israel. Nor do I want them as subjects of Israel,” he said last month during a press conference in Australia, dismissing suggestion he was in favor of a one-state solution. Netanyahu knows that unlimited settlement growth, including the creation of new settlements, would eventually lead to such an outcome, even though political pressures prevent him from saying this openly.

The coming days will show how Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition will react to the new reality. Currently it looks as if Jewish Home and the hawkish members of his own Likud party will manage to contain their disappointment — many saw in Trump’s election the dawn of a new era for Greater Israel that would massively build in and eventually annex the West Bank — and won’t attempt to derail the government.

If so, Netanyahu will have reasons to celebrate. He will have publicly agreed to curb settlement expansion, which is in his strategic interest, while avoiding clashes with the US administration on the one hand and the settler lobby on the other.

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