Demonstrators rally outside Knesset for the annexation of Ma'aleh Adumim.
(photo credit: HILLEL MEIR/TAZPIT)
Coordination, sensitivity and open communications on the issue of building in Judea and Samaria are integral to maintaining good relations between Israel and the US.
US President Donald Trump has made it clear on a number of occasions that he is interested in advancing a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. And from the point of view of the Trump administration, settlement expansion in Judea and Samaria could be counterproductive to that goal.
In February, during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first visit to the White House after Trump’s election, the president stated clearly that settlement expansion “may not be helpful” in achieving peace and asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements a little bit.”
Out of consideration for the Trump administration’s position on settlement expansion, the prime minister asked for and received the security cabinet’s support for restrictions on building in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
Starting immediately, construction will be allowed inside the boundaries of existing communities. No new settlements will be created, except one – a new site for the families evicted from Amona, which will be the first new settlement to be created in Judea and Samaria in more than two decades.
Yet Netanyahu has still come under fire from the Right.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett claimed that the prime minister missed an “historic opportunity” to shape the Trump administration’s policy vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He said that Trump is the most Zionist US president ever, but because the Israeli government is so passive and because Netanyahu continues to adhere to the idea of a two-state solution, we cannot expect Trump to be “more Zionist than we.”
MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) criticized the cabinet decision, warning of a coalition crisis if the prime minister does not permit construction inside settlements. Bayit Yehudi might also attempt to push legislation for the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel.
Bennett seems to think that the Trump administration would have been willing to follow Israel’s lead and accept any policy advocated by Jerusalem. The assumption Bennett is making is that Trump came into the White House with no position of his own on the issue of settlements. If only Netanyahu had been more forceful, Bennett seems to be saying, he could have convinced the Trump administration to support annexation.
Putting aside for the moment the question of whether annexation is a good a idea, it is highly unlikely that Trump would have been willing to receive a diktat from Jerusalem on settlements. Rather, Trump and his policymakers have their own considerations.
The US president is scheduled to meet in Washington this week with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and with Jordan’s King Abdullah as part of his push for a regional peace initiative. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is slated to meet with Trump in mid-April.
Trump is determined to reach an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and is asking Israel – in addition to the settlement restrictions – to carry out other goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians.
For a number of reasons, Israel should cooperate with the Trump administration. First and foremost, it is in Israel’s interest to reach a peace arrangement with the Palestinians.
Annexation would potentially endanger Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. It would either turn the Jewish state into a bi-national one with roughly equal numbers of Arabs and Jews or it would necessitate taking effective Israeli control over the entire West Bank without giving the Palestinians living there the right to political representation in Israel.
Some members of the Likud have hinted that they support such an unequal outcome.
It is just as important for Israel to not be seen as causing the US initiative to fail. With the region facing bigger challenges on the horizon – like Iran and Syria – it is vital that Israel and the US remain in close coordination and that Israel’s security interests are taken into consideration.
Though Trump is undoubtedly a strong advocate of Israel, he, like his predecessor, has his own set of interests and goals that do not necessarily overlap with those of the Bayit Yehudi Party. They do, however, seem to dovetail with the interests of a majority of Israelis who would like to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict that protects Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.