US President Donald Trump is the first American leader in the last five decades of the Palestinian conflict who appears to be blasé about Israeli West Bank settlement building.
It’s an odd stance for a president who dreams of making the “Deal of the Century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Just less than three years ago, in a speech to the United Nations, former US secretary of state John Kerry spoke about staunch US opposition to such activity and the harm it would cause to any peace process.
Historical maps of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria)
“Every United States administration, Republican and Democratic, has opposed settlements as contrary to the prospects for peace,” he said.
Kerry didn’t name them, but the list of former US presidents vocal on the subject includes Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
When Trump first came into office in January 2017, he appeared to follow in their footsteps, albeit more gently.
During his first joint news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February of that year, Trump said, “As far as settlements, I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
In the months that followed, a somewhat harsher line was used, with US officials stating that, “unrestrained settlement activity is not helpful to the peace process.”
There was even a moment in 2017 when Netanyahu promised the Trump administration that he would constrain settlement activity, promising to build beyond the developed line of the settlements only when necessary.
Israel has long held that settlement activity is irrelevant to any peace or diplomatic process.
ISRAEL’S 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and its 1994 treaty with Jordan were signed while Israel engaged in settlement building. In 2005, Israel destroyed 21 settlements in Gaza and four in northern Samaria without ever freezing settlement building.
The 10-month moratorium Netanyahu imposed on new settlement starts in 2009 and 2010 produced neither a peace treaty nor even protracted negotiations with the Palestinians.
In 2018, the Trump administration appeared to accept that settlements did not harm the peace process and stopped criticizing that activity all together.
To each question on the issue, Trump officials have said only this, “The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration,” adding that “the US welcomes this.”
But US officials have not explained what concerns Trump does have, if he has any at all.
Indeed, Trump’s laissez-faire attitude, coupled with an intense annexation push by Israeli right-wing politicians, almost made the settlement building seem passé.
In the final days of Israel’s 2019 election campaign, Netanyahu seemed to make the issue irrelevant altogether when he made his first public pledge to annex the West Bank settlements to Israel.
It was the kind of statement that would have been impossible to make during the Obama administration, or in fact, at any point in the last 26 years, at least.
Israel has twice sparked an international outcry by annexing territory it captured in the defensive 1967 Six Day War, applying sovereignty to east Jerusalem in 1980 and to the Golan Heights in 1981.
In contrast, although Israel built Jewish communities in the West Bank territory it captured in that war, it never annexed the area that the international community has designated for a Palestinian state.
Such a move became much harder after Israel signed onto the US-initiated Oslo Accord in 1993. Under Oslo, Israel committed to resolve territorial issues through negotiations for a final status agreement for a two-state resolution to the conflict. Annexation, therefore, would unilaterally change the status of the territories and run counter to the Oslo pledge.
Annexation also runs the risk of complicating the Trump peace plan that is due to be published at the earliest in June – which calls for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BUT WHILE the European Union and the Palestinians have condemned Netanyahu’s annexation talk, the Trump administration has been largely silent on the matter, save for two fateful words US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo uttered last Friday during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Pompeo was asked if he thought Netanyahu’s comments on annexing the West Bank would “hurt the pursuit of peace,” specifically Trump’s peace plan.
“I don’t,” Pompeo replied.
It’s possible his words are a ploy, allowing the Palestinians to think the US would approve unilateral annexation of the settlements by way of pressing them to the negotiation table.
Still, his response raises the question of whether Trump could be on the verge of becoming the first US president to support Israeli annexation of portions of the West Bank. It also could indicate that the Trump administration’s peace plan already unilaterally places West Bank settlements within Israel’s sovereign borders. If so, Netanyahu’s talk of annexation could hardly harm that process.
The Palestinians believe Trump has removed the issue of settlements, Jerusalem and refugees from the table announcing that if this is the case, the plan is dead on arrival.
Trump’s 2017 decision to relocate the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to west Jerusalem and his recognition last month of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights have bolstered that belief.
The details of the “Deal of the Century,” authored by US Special Envoys Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner, have been successfully kept under wraps. Both men have asked the public to keep an open mind about the plan and to wait to judge it until is released.
Kushner recently told ambassadors that both Israelis and Palestinians would have to make concessions, but he did not clarify what those would be. In the past, “concessions” has always been code for a demand for Israeli territorial withdrawal, but Trump is hardly using that same rule book.
As a president, Trump has a reputation for dismantling past international agreements with countries such as Iran, Russia, Mexico and Canada. Similarly, members of his administration have already stated that Trump’s plan will change the known dialogue around the resolution of this conflict and that it does not abide by past international understandings.
“I think that the vision that we’ll lay out is going to represent a significant change from the model that’s been used,” Pompeo told CNN’s Tapper last week.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon told reporters on Wednesday that Netanyahu would wait for the Trump peace plan before moving forward on annexation.
BUT WHAT if the plan is delayed? How long exactly could Netanyahu wait before making good on his pledge? This is especially important given the potential narrow makeup of his coalition, which would make the government’s survival dependent on the Union of Right-Wing Parties, for whom annexation is a critical issue.
Two years ago, when Trump first entered office, right-wing politicians in Netanyahu’s government begged him to make use of a narrow window of diplomatic time to annex the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement. They argued that Netanyahu could claim he had done so on the basis of Trump’s already supportive stance toward the settlements before any prohibitive policies for such a step were put in place.
If the peace plan is delayed, history is likely to repeat. Members of Netanyahu’s government could urge him to risk Trump’s ire by moving forward on an annexation plan rather than risk publication of a plan that, despite all the positive signs, might make such a process prohibitive.
They might even suggest that Netanyahu test his boundaries by applying sovereignty to one of the settlement blocs, such as Ma’aleh Adumim or Gush Etzion.
An Israeli unilateral annexation move, with tactic US understanding but without its support, might even help Trump win votes with his evangelical Christian base.
Either way, a window of diplomatic opportunity for annexation has opened for Israel.
It simply remains to be seen if Netanyahu, who managed to win an electoral campaign with the help of two of the worlds most powerful leaders, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump, can make his mark by expanding Israel’s sovereign border.
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