Analysis: Can Netanyahu cross Trump on West Bank settlements?

Thursday’s announcement shows that Netanyahu has lost whatever period of honeymoon grace he might have had with the Trump administration.

Netanyahu and Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One has to ask. If President Donald Trump has no worries about antagonizing countries like Mexico and Australia, why would he hesitate to anger Israel, as well? Trump doesn’t shy away from fights. On the contrary, he appears to revel in them.
“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it. They’re tough.
We have to be tough,” he said at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday.
Only hours later, he issued his first warning to Israel on settlement construction, first to The Jerusalem Post and then through a White House press statement to cease settlements announcements that are “unilateral” and undermining of Trump’s efforts to forge peace in the Mideast.
Right-wing MKs and settler leaders immediately spun the comments into a positive message that is consistent with their belief that Trump will support Israel’s hold on settlements in Area C of the West Bank.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely noted rightly that it could be a game changer for the White House to publicly reject one of the pillars of president Barack Obama’s policy with regard to Israel — that settlement building is a stumbling block to peace.
However, the Trump administration’s statements also emphasized the president wants to broker a deal to end the conflict.
Announcements of settlement building, unilateral action, the creation of new settlements and the expansion of existing ones beyond their borders may not be helpful to the peace process, US officials said.
They were careful to note, however, that the administration was still studying the issue of settlement activity.
The statements were sandwiched between a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan at the prayer breakfast and one with Netanyahu on February 15.
For a president with a reputation of shooting from the hip, it was an unusually diplomatic and carefully crafted message that gives a nod to both leaders without going all the way.
It also differentiated between the US president’s personal beliefs and what his diplomatic policy might need to be; while Trump didn’t think settlements were a stumbling block, he did, at first flush, see how settlement building could be detrimental to his end goals of brokering a deal.
When it comes to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, even Trump has started to understand that subtle diplomacy matters.
Trump struck a similar tone when speaking earlier in the week with the Christian Broadcast Network about moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, an act Palestinian and Arab leaders have warned could create chaos in the region.
“I have always liked the concept of doing it, I will tell you that,” he said. “We are doing very detailed studies,” Trump added as he acknowledged that it was not his typical pattern of behavior to allow his policies to be dictated by research.
“Usually, I do what is right,” Trump said. “This has two sides to it. It’s not easy.”
In short, he might have to forgo his personal beliefs for the larger political good of his wider diplomatic agenda.
Netanyahu heads to Washington for his meeting in the midst of a political battle to prove he is the leader of the right wing.
He made a point, on Thursday to travel to Ariel, to align himself with its beloved late mayor Ron Nachman and speak at a memorial service for him.
“We are partners on the same path,” said the prime minister.
With the possibility of elections in the air, Netanyahu is under pressure from right-wing lawmakers to throw off the shackles of Obama’s no-tolerance settlement policy.
They have a shopping list for him: Annex Ma’aleh Adumim.
Pass a law retroactively legalizing 4,000 settler homes on private Palestinian property. Eliminate the entire concept of the blocs and build everywhere.
Some urged Netanyahu to take steps immediately after Trump entered office to take advantage of supportive promises made to Israel during the campaign.
Those lawmakers feared that Trump, once he had sat for a time in the Oval Office, might echo former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s famous line about leading a country, “What you see from here, you do not see from there.”
Netanyahu, with the support of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, urged caution and silence, saying the way to start a relationship is not to dictate the terms of what will ultimately be an understanding between Israel and the United States over settlement activity.
With that in mind, and with a need to counter the political backlash of last week’s evacuation of the Amona outpost, Netanyahu has pushed forward on construction that mainly followed the lines of what Israel holds has been its pre-Obama understanding with the US – that it can build in the blocs. In an unusual series of announcements, Netanyahu said he planned to advance or authorize 5,500 new settler homes, mostly in the blocs.
Netanyahu is hoping that when he talks with Trump in Washington about settlements, the president will agree to allow Israel to continue to build there.
To test the waters, Netanyahu went one small step further on Wednesday, announcing the creation of a new settlement, something Israel in the past had obligated itself to not do.
The negative response from Washington was swift, even if it was couched in positive terms.
It could be just a stop sign, asking Israel to wait until Trump has formulated policy, or it could be a foreshadowing that this president might throw Israel a few crumbs but would otherwise stick within the larger framework of frowning on Israeli settlement activity.
Under Obama, US and Israeli officials liked to say, “friends could agree to disagree.”
That is unlikely to be the line of this administration once it knows what its policy will be.
And that policy, should it go against the fanatical expectations of the right wing, could put Netanyahu at odds with a Trump Washington that initially appears to bear no dissent.
Thursday’s warning shows that Netanyahu has lost whatever honeymoon period of grace he might have had with the Trump administration.
Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro speculated that Trump must have released the statement to help Netanyahu in his political battle with the Right. Just as Netanyahu’s tweet about Mexico could have been at Trump’s request.
Whether by design or not, from here on out, Netanyahu has returned to the same place he stood with Obama.
Unless Trump falls in line with Israel’s right-wing camp, Netanyahu will continue to have to choose between his political fortunes at home and the larger diplomatic status of Israel-US relations.
After eight years of promises for a new tomorrow, it is a tightrope walk that will be increasingly hard for him to make.