PM Netanyahu and President Trump.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
What are we to make of US President Donald Trump’s settlement policy following his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? On one hand, it seemed that Trump was continuing US policy that opposes settlement growth on the West Bank. During the press conference he pivoted to Netanyahu and said to him, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out, but I would like to see a deal made.”
But then it appeared that Trump was willing to support full annexation of Judea and Samaria when he said he “can live with” a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that creates a single state for both peoples.
Then again Trump qualified his support for a one-state solution.
“So I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said, as Netanyahu chuckled.
“I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one,” Trump said. “I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two. But honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians – if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”
Here Trump seemed once again to be advocating what previous US presidents have supported – a negotiated deal that is agreed upon by both Israelis and Palestinians.
Trump’s pick of David Friedman as his ambassador to Israel seems to imply that he supports settlements.
Friedman is on record saying that the two-state solution, which would establish a Palestinian state, is “an illusion that serves the worst intentions of both the US and the Palestinian Arabs.”
But then again, in an exclusive interview with the Israeli daily Israel Hayom, Trump said, “I am not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace. But we are looking at all different kinds of options.”
So which is it? Does Trump support the building of settlements or is he opposed? The answer, most likely, is that even Trump has not formulated a clear position on the matter. There is no doubt that he has worked to change the tone coming out of Washington, making clear his support for Israel and his respect for Netanyahu. But when it comes to substance, it is unclear precisely where Trump stands. That’s why it is so important for Netanyahu to proceed cautiously.
A unique opportunity has been presented to work with a US administration that is truly supportive of Israel and sympathetic to its security needs, including the dangers of creating a Palestinian state along its border. However, Netanyahu should be careful to coordinate future settlement growth with Trump. The prime minister could, for instance, pursue a US-supported policy that restricts settlement growth to the large settlement blocs and Jerusalem, and refrain from building outside the blocs.
But it is essential that Netanyahu not take Trump’s support for granted. When he returns to Israel, Netanyahu will be under pressure from the Bayit Yehudi Party and ministers within the Likud to expand settlement building.
He should resist being dragged in a direction that might hurt relations with Washington.
Clearly, Trump has not yet formulated a clear stand on the issue of settlements and he may never formulate such a stand. Trump may want to leave his options open and not commit himself to a position that would set him at odds with the leaders of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
Israel should work closely with the Trump administration and make sure there are no surprises. Regularly updating officials in Washington on Israeli plans would help ensure that relations between the two governments remain open and friendly.
Netanyahu seems to appreciate this. Toward the end of their joint press conference, Netanyahu said that he and Trump would continue to discuss the issue of settlements “so we don’t keep on bumping into each other all the time.” This would be wise. Allowing members of his government to pressure him into taking steps not coordinated with the Trump administration would not.