With Trump as president, why isn’t Netanyahu building more settlements?

“Not one single brick” was Netanyahu’s slogan for whenever settler leaders urged him to approve new construction, a reference to a phrase he heard from Obama in one of their first meetings.

THE NEWLY built settlement of Amihai seen from the vinyards of Meshek Achiya just north of the Shiloh Valley July 12, 2018  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE NEWLY built settlement of Amihai seen from the vinyards of Meshek Achiya just north of the Shiloh Valley July 12, 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tucked among rows of luscious vineyards and olive trees, a new settlement has come to life in the West Bank. It is called Amihai and it is the first Jewish community to be built and approved by Israel in Judea and Samaria in the last 25 years.
For now, Amihai is still under construction. Built after the evacuation last year of the illegal outpost of Amona, the residents live in 36 temporary trailer homes as they await construction of the permanent structures the government promised to build for them just below the settlement of Shiloh, once upon a time the home of the Mishkan, the Israelites’ ancient Tabernacle.
The vineyards are owned by Meshek Achiya, a winery and olive press that manufactures award-winning olive oil and has established a name for its high-quality products not just in Israel, but also throughout Europe and the Far East. What about boycotts, I asked the CEO during a recent tour of the area. Boycotts don’t affect us, he replied. The olive oil is simply too good for consumers to pass on.
Three weeks ago, in June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to come to Amihai for an inauguration ceremony. A few days before the event though, he canceled and his office has yet to schedule a new date. Why? No one I spoke to really knows.
This is interesting because last year at a cornerstone-laying ceremony for a new neighborhood in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, Netanyahu boasted that “no government has done more for the settlement movement than the one under my leadership.”
But that is not exactly accurate. While the decision to build Amihai was the first in 25 years, it came under duress and extreme political pressure. Netanyahu had little flexibility when forced to evacuate Amona and he needed a way to balance the images of a forcible evacuation. Establishing a new settlement was the perfect way to do that. But to say that no one has built like Netanyahu seems to many residents of Judea and Samaria as an exaggeration.
They refer to statistics. In the first quarter of 2018, for example, construction in Judea and Samaria dropped to a six-year low with only 250 housing starts, the lowest number since 2012. In all of 2017, there were 1,643 starts, almost half of the number in 2016.
This seems to not make sense. In 2012 and 2016 Barack Obama was the president of the United States and Netanyahu faced tremendous pressure to cut back on settlement construction. “Not one single brick” was Netanyahu’s slogan for whenever settler leaders urged him to approve new construction, a reference to a phrase he heard from Obama in one of their first meetings.
But with Donald Trump in office since 2017, why is the construction declining and not increasing? The Trump administration is perceived by many on the Right to be the most pro-Israel White House in years, demonstrated by the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem as well as the pullout from the Iran nuclear deal. Israel, these settlement proponents claim, needs to take advantage of this unique window of opportunity.
These people might be right, but I think the real reason Israel is not launching a massive construction campaign is because Netanyahu prefers not to take irreversible steps. It is a trait that has characterized his premiership since the day he returned to office in 2009.
If, for example, Netanyahu decided to annex all of the so-called settlement blocs – Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion, Ariel and more – it would easily pass in the Knesset. Such legislation would receive the support of the entire coalition as well as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and even some part of Avi Gabbay’s Zionist Union. Its likely that the White House would even stay quiet and hold back from condemning such a move.
SO WHY doesn’t he do it? Why doesn’t he take steps that would lead Israel in a clear direction? When Obama was president, Netanyahu explained that he needed to comply with US demands on settlements since he had his eye locked on a more strategic challenge – Iran. If he failed to work with Obama on settlements, he explained then, he wouldn’t get the US president to work with him on stopping the ayatollahs’ quest for a nuclear bomb.
But with Trump, that is not the case. He has not shown the same kind of opposition to settlements like Obama, and with Iran he is actually working with Netanyahu, pulling out of the deal Obama had reached and the Israeli prime minister had passionately fought.
So now, we hear different excuses – the situation in Syria and ensuring that Iran leaves there; the situation in Gaza and the ongoing negotiations with Hamas for a cease-fire; and the peace plan that the White House has been working on for the last 18 months and is expected to unveil sometime soon. Netanyahu doesn’t want to interfere with any of these and therefore prefers not to take decisions that would appear like he is.
According to this thinking, if Gaza stabilizes and the US plan is unveiled, everything should suddenly change. Imagine, for example, if the US plan states that in a future deal, E1 – the corridor between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem – will remain in Israeli hands. If that happens, Netanyahu should have no problem immediately authorizing construction there. Nevertheless, I’m skeptical that he will.
This indecisiveness is popular. Israel seems to not want to make decisions about the future of the West Bank, just like it doesn’t want to make decisions about the Negev, where it lacks a clear plan for how to deal with illegal Bedouin construction; and in Jerusalem where it lacks a vision for a city divided between east and west.
Some on the Right will tell you that it’s not the fault of the government and that it’s impossible to get laws passed in Israel due to the “left-wing” media, the liberal legal advisers and the activist judges.
But this is nonsense. The Right has been in power almost consecutively since the mahapach, Menachem Begin’s victory over Labor in 1977. Yes, there was a short stint by Yitzhak Rabin and an even shorter one by Ehud Barak in between. But besides them, the Right has ruled. The question supporters of the settlement enterprise need to ask themselves is a simple one – if Netanyahu hasn’t done what he promised he would do until now, why will he suddenly change?
The future of the so-called settlements is a decision for Israel to make, and Israel to make alone. After 2,000 years in exile, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was supposed to be the manifestation of Jewish self-determination where authority was given to Jews to finally make decisions for themselves and on their own.
The Israeli people have to decide what they want and what it is in their long-term strategic interest. The question of whether or not to build in settlements shouldn’t depend on who is in the White House or Iran’s nuclear program. It should be a decision based on what is right for Israel.
It is easy to blame the US but that is not always going to be true. Israel has a unique opportunity with Trump in the White House. The question is whether it is fully making use of it.