From Trump to Biden; from West Bank annexation to Israeli apartheid

The settlement movement is now almost precisely where it was four years ago and in some ways it is in an even worse position.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR/CARLOS BARRIA)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden
Prior to Inauguration Day in 2017, the conversation in Israel revolved around West Bank annexation.
On the final Sunday of the month of January of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Israeli Right urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, warning that it was a window of opportunity that would never return.
Netanyahu urged caution, not wanting to tip the hand of then-incoming president Donald Trump, who was believed to be supportive of Jewish rights in Judea and Samaria, and who had pledged to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the “Deal of the Century.”
Four years later, as Trump waved goodbye from Andrews Air Force base and flew to Florida and President Joe Biden took his oath of office, the possibility of West Bank annexation had disappeared from the political and diplomatic lexicon as if blown away by a sudden tornado.
Instead, Netanyahu’s statement of defiance to Biden boiled down to a list of projects, paltry in comparison to the annexation of all West Bank settlements.
During Trump’s four years in office, pragmatic steps were taken on the ground in Jerusalem, with the US relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital.
The Trump years were also marked by the lofty rebranding of concepts surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which allowed the Israeli Right to dream that their agendas with respect to Jerusalem and the West Bank could be achieved.
The Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; declared the legitimacy of settlement activity; acknowledged Jewish historic and religious rights to Judea and Samaria; and allowed for Israel to retain 30% of the West Bank under its two-state solution plan.
In addition, Israel advanced and approved a record number of settler building plans without nary a word of criticism.
BUT THAT was all at the conceptual level. Pragmatically on the ground, in the West Bank, there were few advancements. Fewer homes were built during Trump’s tenure than during Obama’s second term; settler population growth slowed.
Under Obama, Israel transformed three outposts into new settlements. During the Trump years, Israel created one new settlement, transformed one outpost into a settlement, and promised to do so with a third, but the process has yet to be completed.
In short, in terms of on-the-ground advancement, the settlement movement is almost precisely where it was four years ago, and in some ways, it is in an even worse position.
During the Trump years, settlers could dream that they were on the verge of sovereignty.
Now that Israel has suspended annexation in exchange for normalization deals with Arab countries, that option no longer dangles in front of them.
Opponents of annexation had argued that it would deal a death blow to any possibility of a two-state resolution to the conflict.
But its sudden suspension has not led to a renewed push for a new initiative to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the table.
BIDEN IS unique among US presidents in that his relationship with Israel goes back almost 40 years. He boasts that he has worked with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. As such, he has an intimate knowledge of the conflict and could come out of the gate with a plan faster than any of his predecessors.
But unlike Trump, he has made no pledge to resolve the conflict – and is not expected to launch a new initiative in the near future.
In his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Secretary of State nominee Anthony Blinken said that “realistically, it was hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward” on a peace process.
In short, no annexation, but also no peace process.
Instead, Blinken spoke of maintaining a situation that would preserve the option for a peace process.
It’s a formula that thrusts the limelight back onto the day-to-day, inch-by-inch ground battle for Area C of the West Bank. The absence of a larger horizon with a peace process means that Israelis and Palestinians will fight over control of Area C, viewing the situation as a campaign fought by inches.
No ground conflict will be considered benign. Each territorial battle will be viewed as one that helps set the border of Israeli or Palestinian sovereignty.
It’s not just Israelis or Palestinians who will believe this. The United States, Europe, and the international community will view it this way as well.
AT ONE time, the pressure was on Israel to freeze settlement activity as a precondition for talks. Now the pressure will be on Israel to freeze settlement activity as a sign of good faith, so that the option of talks, not the actual talks themselves, can be preserved.
This is what Blinken likely meant when he said that he opposed unilateral steps.
One need to only look at European and UN condemnation of Israel’s plans to advance 800 settler units, a move that would barely have raised an eyebrow a year ago when the focus was on halting Israeli annexation.
The 800 settler homes are only significant when viewed from the lens of keeping open the possibility of negotiations.
It was this type of no-tolerance attitude toward settlement building during the Obama years, combined with the absence of a peace process, that empowered the sovereignty movement and made it part of normative Israeli discourse.
But the Israeli Left is as vulnerable as the Israeli Right to taking positions on the more extreme end of the map when the possibility of change seems slim and the negative impact of a sustained freeze grows.
Eight years of Obama led to an annexation drive. Four years of a frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process under Trump, followed by the absence of any immediate hope of talks under Biden, has almost emboldened the Left to take a more extreme position.
THERE WAS a time when the absence of talks prompted grassroots activists and former politicians to dream up their own peace process. In 2003, Israeli and Palestinian activists unveiled a plan for a two-state solution to the conflict known as the Geneva Accords.
Almost two decades later, with the decimation of the Israeli left-wing political parties, left-wing activists have taken their own extreme position.
If there is no peace process and no immediate possibility of one – and if the only political dialogue that exists in Israel is the battle for Area C – then for some on the Left, the country appears to be heading to apartheid - If there is no plan for a two-state solution, according to some on the Left, then there is only a descent into a one-state apartheid situation.
So it is that a major Israeli NGO in the last two weeks declared that Israel is an apartheid state, even though there are legal experts which argue that this is far from so.
To be clear, this is not just a one-time declaration by B’Tselem, but a rebranding. They will now insert the language of apartheid into all their quotes and their reports on human rights abuses.
Trump's presidency heralded in Israel with an annexation drive, ended in this way with a debate about apartheid.
Biden’s inauguration speech might have offered hope to a divided and plague-ridden America. But the absence of a horizon of peace for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech has left Israelis and Palestinians in a crisis.