Ambiguity is an asset when serving two masters.It’s a principle that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken to heart when courting both US President Donald Trump and Israeli right-wing politicians.Early Friday morning, while Israel slept but Washington was still awake, the security cabinet agreed to Trump’s request to curb West Bank settlement construction.
But the confusing language that described the restrictions allowed some right-wing politicians to celebrate continued settlement activity, while others warned that such building would now be frozen.The cabinet agreed that Israel would initiate new settlement construction projects only within built-up settlements, meaning that Israel would not extend the community’s footprint. In doing so, it revived an understanding that once existed between Israel and the United States during the tenure of former president George W. Bush.But this time around, the cabinet explained that there would be exceptions to that rule, so that in some cases, building would be close to the existing construction lines.With those words, it returned the situation of settlement construction to the “status quo” situation that existed during the Obama administration.In November, right-wing politicians and settlers celebrated what they hoped would be a new era in which the US would stay silent, if not support, blanket Jewish building in Judea and Samaria. David Friedman’s appointment as US ambassador to Israel seemed like icing on the cake, given his pro-settler sympathies.Just four months later, it is clear that, at least for the near future, Trump will discourage settlement building, but with more dulcet tones than his predecessor.What this will likely mean in practice is that future authorizations will be subject to disagreement as to whether or not they meet the restrictions.Savvy right-wing politicians can justify staying in the coalition by counting victories in the cabinet decision. There is no mention of any restrictions on Jewish building in east Jerusalem and there is no mention of freezing isolated settlements.Right-wing politicians can also celebrate the absence of formal designation of what is and what is not a settlement bloc – something they had feared the cabinet would announce.Netanyahu can clamp down on settlement activity with a quiet, de facto freeze when he wants to bolster his ties with Trump, including in the isolated settlements. At the same time, he can ramp up settlement activity when he wants to quell opposition from right-wing politicians or send Palestinians a message.
Trump tells Israel to "hold back on settlements" during meeting with Netanyahu at White House on Feb. 15, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)