The White House.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Donald Trump pulled off a shock election victory back in November, Israel’s Right reacted with euphoria.
“The era of a Palestinian state is over,” Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett declared at the time.
Bennett’s euphoria was misplaced.
Trump told The Wall Street Journal in a post-election interview that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the ultimate deal and one that as deal-maker he would like to do.
It has become clear since then that the US president is not going to give Israel carte blanche to do as it pleases in the West Bank, as evidenced by a White House statement that followed the announcements over the first two weeks of the presidency of some 5,500 new settlement housing units, and plans for a new settlement, the first since 1991.
“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “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.”
But that falls far short of the interpretation that Trump was laying down the law and issuing a warning to Israel. “Netanyahu will be happy,” a senior Israeli diplomat told Reuters, saying that the statement allowed Israel to “build as much as we want in existing settlements as long as we don’t enlarge their physical acreage. No problem there.”
Furthermore, the statement not only reversed the “not one brick” policy of Barack Obama, but specifically said that Trump administration did not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. It also seemed to provide Israel with more leeway than George W. Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon that implicitly acknowledged that settlement blocs would remain under Israeli sovereignty in a final-status deal.
Furthermore, there was no reaction from the administration following the passage this week of the Regulation Law that will – unless it is struck down by the High Court of Justice – retroactively legalize some 4,000 housing units built on private Palestinian land.
How Trump reacts to that move remains to be seen and this and other issues will perhaps be more clear after the president meets with Netanyahu in Washington on February 15. But to suggest that Trump will be sitting Netanyahu down for a stern talk and that he will be walking into a situation similar to his first meeting with Obama in 2009 – when the recently elected US president called for a settlement freeze in a meeting dubbed in Jerusalem as “the ambush” – misinterprets the situation.
Given the warm tone of the initial contacts between Trump and Netanyahu; the direct line of Ambassador Ron Dermer to the administration; the sidelining of the Palestinians, who so far appear to have been ignored by Washington; and the staunchly pro-Israel and even pro-settlement leanings of his appointments – an “ambush” scenario is not on the cards.
Despite Trump’s penchant for keeping his friends and enemies guessing, it is safe to say that for once Netanyahu will be looking forward to his trip to Washington as a welcome respite from the corruption investigations that are plaguing him at home.
While Trump, the deal maker, may well demand a quid pro quo for anything he sees himself giving to Israel, including a possible decision to go ahead with moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, the price at the moment certainly looks like one Netanyahu could afford to pay.
While there may yet be some differences on settlements, one point where Trump and Netanyahu are likely to see eye to eye is on Iran.
The president has already started to get feisty with Tehran, putting it “on notice,” announcing new sanctions after a ballistic missile test and reportedly considering a proposal to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
If the prime minister can rein in his right flank and avoid measures that fall outside of the easyto- live-with parameters that Trump has set on settlements, then, with the president’s hardline views on Iran, the nuclear deal and Tehran’s maleficent influence in the region, it might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship – if he can slip the corruption investigations against him and stay in power.