Diplomacy: Donald Trump, have we got an Israel policy for you!

Israeli ministers just can’t wait for the American president-elect to take office to begin preparing the ground for a new US-Israel relationship – and more settlements.

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference (photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference
(photo credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP)
The past two weeks have seen several Israeli ministers and officials working to try to reset government policy on settlements.
But not just Israeli policy, which is the focus of the settlement outposts bill being rushed through the Knesset in an effort to save Amona from court-ordered evacuation; also the policies that the incoming Trump administration will adopt regarding settlements, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as a whole.
As with the Amona bill, the most aggressive player in this game is Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
The Bayit Yehudi leader wasted no time following the election to declare Trump’s win as an opportunity to reset the relationship with the US away from its traditional disputes over settlements as “obstacles” to a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution.
He issued a statement just hours after the election had been decided that “Trump’s victory offers Israel a tremendous opportunity to renounce the idea of a Palestinian state in the heart of our country.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who has been forthright about his desire to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the Likud leader, also rushed to remind a triumphant Trump of his campaign promise to move the US Embassy to the capital, as an acknowledgment of full Israeli sovereignty over the city.
Also jumping into the fray was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who proposed Israel offer the incoming Trump administration a new diplomatic deal that would have the Netanyahu government freeze construction in isolated settlements, in return for official US recognition of the major settlement blocs as future Israeli territory, and consent to freely expand them without American approbation.
By last week Netanyahu had had enough with this diplomatic freelancing, and ordered his ministers and other Israeli officials to refrain from publicly proffering preemptive diplomatic advice and offers to the nascent Trump administration.
But choosing to read only the fine print of this directive, Netanyahu’s ministers decided this didn’t include meeting on the sly with Trump’s advisers and whispering sweet proposals in their ears. After Bennett conferred on Sunday in the US with a few of Trump’s staffers and suggested they reconsider continuing with the two-state solution as official American policy, the prime minister issued another order this week instructing all Israeli officials to refrain from such meetings unless first approved by his office.
“It’s absurd for Israelis at this stage to try to impose their political views on a Trump administration,” says Bar-Ilan University political science professor Gerald Steinberg. “This approach may backfire, as it looks like Israelis are trying to limit Trump’s options in the region, which is not going to be appreciated.”
If this seems obvious, why the seemingly unseemly haste by Bennett, Liberman and Barkat to already set down new diplomatic parameters for the incoming US administration?
Domestic political considerations certainly can’t be ruled out; all three men have made no secret of their prime ministerial ambitions. Boldly staking out positions that appeal to their constituencies, while Netanyahu observes more proper diplomatic restraint, can serve their aims to succeed him.
But one Israeli official involved in this early outreach to Trump’s team describes it as a necessary corrective to the diplomatic approach taken by Netanyahu that repeatedly got him into scraps with the Obama administration. It was a mistake, according to the official, for the prime minister to declare his acceptance of a Palestinian state back in 2009, when he knew that goal was practically impossible to achieve.
The official argues that the discrepancy between the government’s formal stance on the peace process, on the one hand, and its intention to continue building up settlements, on the other, only aggravated the relationship with the Obama White House.
Relations with the US, the official believes, would have actually been better served – and served even better still as regards the incoming Trump administration – by a more honest and ideologically consistent policy that clearly rejected the Palestinian state option and strongly supported settlement expansion.
The notion that more openly and forcefully expressing policies that are rejected by the US – and the rest of the world as well – will somehow ease that disagreement and eventually even win over the international community may sound a little fanciful, if not delusional.
It also runs counter to the current diplomatic strategy being pursued by Netanyahu – which he explicitly laid out at this week’s Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference – of trying to paint Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the peace rejectionist.
The prime minister claimed he was succeeding in this goal by flying to various world capitals and offering to immediately start face-to-face negotiations with Abbas on the spot; the Palestinians invariably refuse, thus disappointing the would-be hosts and creating the impression in their minds that it is Israel which is seeking peace, and the Palestinians who are obstructing it.
Netanyahu asserted that Israel’s improving international standing and expanding diplomatic relationships are due in part to this strategy, though others would certainly point to various other factors as more likely reasons.
Regardless, it may be even more wishful thinking to believe at this stage that a Trump administration will be prepared to jettison long-standing US policy supporting an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza as a sine qua non of a final peace agreement.
Trump himself certainly didn’t strike that note in his talk this week with The New York Times, where he declared he would “love to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” echoing similar remarks he made during the campaign to The Wall Street Journal.
While one might choose to dismiss those remarks as the kind of fanciful musings the president-elect is prone to indulge in, there are other indications that things in Washington might not develop along the lines imagined by Bennett and company. These include the serious consideration Trump is giving to retired Marine Gen. James Mattis (described by the president-elect as “the real deal” after their meeting) as his defense secretary – the same Mattis who has criticized Israeli settlement building as an obstacle to peace, and even used the dreaded “apartheid” comparison regarding the situation over the Green Line.
Yet drawing any conclusions at all on Trump’s Mideast policies, based on the scant evidence currently out there, is as wrongheaded as the aspirations of those Israeli officials who believe they can already begin shaping the direction of the next US administration.
“To fulfill his campaign of making America great again, Trump has to first focus internally,” says Steinberg. “What he does externally remains a huge question mark; we don’t know who his top advisers will be, what his foreign policy will be, or if he even has one. So Israelis, at this stage, will just have to wait and see.”