On March 9, 2010, then-US vice president Joe Biden started a visit to Israel by asserting the administration’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
A few hours later, when it emerged that Israel had approved 1,600 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, he denounced “the substance and timing of the announcement,” fuming that it “runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.” The next day, Biden doubled down: “At the request of President [Barack] Obama, I condemn it immediately and unequivocally.”
The crisis continued to grew over the next few days, with Israel’s ambassador in Washington being summoned to the State Department for a dressing down, secretary of state Hillary Clinton telephoning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convey Obama’s anger, and the president’s chief of staff terming the dispute “a pimple on the ass of US-Israel friendship.”
Today, such DC-Jerusalem drama over Israeli plans to build houses in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem has become unimaginable. Indeed, since Donald Trump moved into the White House, the international community’s single-issue hyper-focus on Israeli settlements would seem to have been consigned to a past era.
Even the Europeans, who haven’t substantially changed their policies regarding settlements, have toned down their criticism, to some extent, of Israeli building beyond the pre-1967 Green Line.
To be sure, Trump in February asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” And White House and State Department spokespeople routinely reiterate the administration’s view that “unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance the peace process.”
And yet, whereas in the recent past, settlements were considered by many as the most important of all core issues, today they have been relegated to one of several bitterly disputed issues that need to be addressed if progress is to be made toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When Obama in his first year in office sought to restart peace talks, he pressured Israel into a nine-month settlement freeze. This inevitably turned it into a Palestinian precondition for entering negotiations with Israel — since the Palestinians cannot ask for less than the White House — and thus in many respects crowned it the king of all core issues, the key to unlocking the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
The Israeli government, too, contributed to the central importance given to settlements in recent years.
In 2013, Jerusalem chose to release dozens of Palestinian security prisoners rather than agree to another settlement freeze. In fact, the Netanyahu government adamantly announced the approval of hundreds of new East Jerusalem homes during another round of peace negotiations, initiated by then-secretary of state John Kerry. Kerry later partially blamed the settlement issue for the collapse of the talks in his valedictory “poof” speech.
Over eight years, the Obama White House consistently condemned almost every single brick Israel announced the intention to lay down for building outside the pre-1967 lines. The relentless disagreement reached record heights in December 2016, when the US abstained on, and thus allowed the passage of, a United Nations Security Council Resolution that affirmed that Israel’s settlement enterprise “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to … a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
Israel accused the outgoing administration of planning what it termed an ambush against Israel, sparking the worst crisis in bilateral ties in years and insuring that the issue of settlements was firmly center stage.
And there it remained for a while even after Trump took office. Having donated $10,000 to Beit El and having tapped David Friedman, an outspoken advocate for the settlement movement, as his ambassador to Israel, it seemed that the new president’s approach to Israel’s presence in the West Bank would be fundamentally different than that of all his recent predecessors. Some settlers and their political advocates hailed him as a veritable messiah, whose arrival heralded an unprecedented building boom.
Europe’s responses to new building plans appear to have softened
That has not happened, but while Trump asked Israel to rein in settlement expansion, he has not castigated existing settlements as an obstacle to peace. In a sharp contrast to the previous administration, the current White House appears to understand Netanyahu’s political predicament — as hawkish members of his coalition demand more settlement construction — and may even empathize with the settlers’ need for natural growth.
The administration has asked both Israelis and Palestinians to take steps to help create a climate conducive for peace, and therefore it would be problematic if Jerusalem were to dramatically increase settlement construction and build new outposts on hilltop after hilltop across the West Bank, senior US officials make plain in private conversations. But as long as the Israeli government coordinates its moves with the White House and does not embarrass it, the Trump administration will likely refrain from denouncing Israel for plans to expand existing settlements.
This new wind from Washington is clearly being felt by the Palestinians. Tactically determined for the time being to stay on the US president’s good side, they have dropped the demand for a settlement freeze as precondition for talks without much arm-twisting. This shift alone powerfully underlines that Israel’s construction of homes in the West Bank is longer the central point of peace process deadlock.
Rather, the fixation on settlements has been superseded by a focus on a large portfolio of issues that need to be addressed in Trump’s bid for an accord he claims may “not be as difficult as people have thought.” To Ramallah’s great chagrin, those issues include incitement to violence and the Palestinian Authority’s payments to incarcerated terrorists and their families.
The Europeans have not adopted Trump’s more tolerant stance on settlement, still adhering to their traditional opposition to any Israeli building outside the Green Line. However, their formulaic responses to Israeli announcements of settlement expansions appear to have softened.
In July 2016, months before Trump’s election victory, the European Union said Israel’s planned construction of several hundred new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank “calls into question Israel’s commitment to a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.” Noting that settlements are illegal under international law, the EU urged Israel to “stop this policy and to reverse its recent decision.”
In October, an additional statement on the issue called “into question Israel’s commitment to a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.”
Fast forward a few months. In early February, days after Trump entered the Oval Office, EU foreign policy czar Federica Mogherini called Israel’s intention to build 3,000 new West Bank housing units “a very worrying trend, posing a direct challenge to the prospects of a viable two-state solution, which is increasingly difficult and risks becoming impossible.”
The EU “deeply regrets that Israel is proceeding with this, despite the continuous serious international concern and objections,” she added.
This was certainly still a strong statement, but it did not repeat the previous doubts about Israel’s commitment to peace.
Last Friday, as Israel issued building permits for over 1,500 new housing units in East Jerusalem, the EU produced an even tamer statement, asking the government “to reconsider these decisions.”
Settlements are illegal and undermine “the prospect for a lasting peace,” the statement stressed. But while previous such texts called into question Israel’s desire to reach an agreement — giving the Palestinians a free pass, Israel would often argue — last week’s statement called on “both sides to engage in a meaningful process towards a negotiated two-state solution.”
Most decisionmakers in the Western world still consider unfettered settlement expansion to constitute a major impediment to the creation of a viable Palestinian state, which they see as the only way to reach a durable peace. Even Trump is not giving Israel a carte blanche to build wherever it wants. “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” the president told the Israel Hayom daily in February.
But nearly a decade after Barack Obama indicated that the path to Israeli-Palestinian peace wound via an indefinite settlement freeze, and the world followed him in prioritizing the issue, settlements are now just one of the many vexing issues that will have to be tackled if Trump is to achieve his self-styled “ultimate deal.”