Taking Trump Literally And Seriously

February 23, 2017 § 1 Comment

Everyone will recall the debate that unfolded during the 2016 presidential campaign over how to treat Donald Trump’s utterances on various policy issues. His detractors were increasingly alarmed by the ideas that spilled forth from his lips at rallies, many of which seemed to be blurted out without much thought into their wisdom or the details of their implementation. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it; ban Muslims from coming into the country; slap a tariff on American companies making products overseas. His defenders exhorted those who were panicking at what seemed to be a litany of questionable proposals to stop taking Trump literally, and instead to take him seriously. So, for instance, when Trump threatened to punitively tax companies that were moving jobs overseas, the interpretation was supposed to be not that he would follow through, but that he was serious about finding a way to increase domestic job growth. It turns out, however, that taking Trump literally was not as silly as his campaign surrogates suggested, and that his words do indeed provide a guide for where he will initially land on policy. So applying this frame, what does it mean in the Israel context?

Largely forgotten alongside his more famous comments about wanting to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians is that early in his campaign, Trump actually laid out a precise roadmap for how he was going to approach Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In some of his first comments on Israel during an interview with the Associated Press in December 2015, Trump refused to be pinned down on a host of specific Israel-related issues, which in itself was a strategy. But he did say enough to make it easier to predict what he is going to do going forward, and figure out how it meshes with his comments during the joint press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu last Wednesday.

Talking to the AP before the first primary votes had been cast, Trump said that the first thing he was going to do was sit down with leaders in the region to gauge not only their feelings about the contours of a deal and whether it is workable, but also to test their commitment to peace. He said that “I’ll be able to tell in one sit-down meeting with the real leaders” what is possible, and that he would know for sure within six months of taking office. He also said that he was not convinced that either Israel or the Palestinians were serious about an agreement and that he had greater concerns about one of the sides, but refused to say which side. He did, however, very clearly place the burden of resolving the situation on Israel; “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things. They may not be, and I understand that, and I’m OK with that. But then you’re just not going to have a deal.” He also, in what is now a familiar refrain, would not commit to moving the embassy, would not refer to Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, called settlements “a huge sticking point,” and would not commit to a two-state solution so as not to prejudice negotiations ahead of time. On whether he would want to dive into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as president, he said, “I think if I get elected, that would be something I’d really like to do. Because so much death, so much turmoil, so much hatred — that would be to me a great achievement. As a single achievement, that would be a really great achievement.”

The Trump playbook so far has followed the literal script he laid out before the politics of the campaign forced him to adopt more traditionally hawkish positions. The first thing he said he would do was talk with regional leaders. Not only did he sit down with Netanyahu early on, he also sat down with Jordan’s King Abdullah, spoke with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and White House aides have been making the rounds of Arab ambassadors in Washington. He said that the burden would be on Israel to resolve the situation, and lo and behold he stood next to Netanyahu and warned him that both sides would have to compromise and again alluded to settlements being a sticking point in asking the prime minister to hold off on them for awhile. If we take Trump literally as we should, it means that he is going to make a very heavy early push on getting the two sides together, and will lean on Israel to stop taking actions in the short term that make a negotiated solution more difficult.

In this light, Trump’s pronunciations at last week’s press conference should not have come as a surprise. His infamous “I’m looking at two state and one state, and I like the one that both parties like” is not a declaration of policy. It is a declaration of tactics. Similarly, his repeated characterization of settlements as problematic in some limited way, in the AP interview and in the White House statement following Netanyahu’s announcement of new construction and then in his request of Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” is not a policy position but a tactical position. Trump wants to get to a deal and he doesn’t terribly care what is in it, so his primary strategy is to not get pinned down on any specific variable. He will focus on the tangible things, like Palestinian incitement and Israeli settlements, that each side points to as a specific barrier, and he will ignore what the actual end result will look like.

It is important, however, not to ignore the other part of the equation that is clear from Trump’s words. He wants to get a deal, and he thinks the burden is on the Israelis to do the heavy lifting, but he also does not want to waste his time on a drawn out process and has no interest in convincing a party that does not want to be convinced. Contrary to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, he is not going to keep going back to the well if he is not able to work out an agreement in his first year in office, and he is not going to pressure Israel into changing its mind if it is unwilling at first to sacrifice in the ways that he asks. What the larger consequences of that may be for either Israel or the Palestinians are unknown, but if there is one thing that we know so far about this president, it is that he is deeply transactional. Understanding Israel’s reluctance to take certain steps is not the same as giving Israel free rein on every issue without fear of blowback for that reluctance. Hopefully Netanyahu is wise enough to take his new American partner both literally and seriously.

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Trump and Netanyahu, Round One

February 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

After spending his entire tenure as prime minister chafing under the strictures placed upon him by Democratic presidents, Prime Minister Netanyahu finally gets his wish today: his first face-to-face Oval Office meeting with a Republican president. And not just any Republican president, but President Trump – the man the Israeli right has hailed as a savior from the day he was elected and upon whom they have placed their hopes and dreams. There is no question that Netanyahu is looking for a vastly different relationship with the current president than he had with the previous one, and also no question that both men will emerge from their meeting with ear-to-ear grins and acting like best friends, irrespective of whether the meeting warrants it or not. There are some obvious reasons for this, from the fact that both men lead right of center parties and are broadly ideologically similar to the simple desire to get off on the right foot. The current moment, however, also provides some more detailed and specific reasons for the two men to avoid disagreements, and provides some guide as to what they are likely to discuss, what they are likely to avoid, and what they should discuss if they want to keep the relationship on an even keel.

What Trump needs out of this meeting is simple. He is being buffeted on all sides with headache-inducing crises, be it the North Korean ballistic missile test, the resignation after only twenty four days of his national security adviser Mike Flynn beneath a cloud of allegations of his being compromised by Russia, or questions over the basic competence level of his senior aides and his continuing inability to staff the government beneath the cabinet level. Trump also has clearly not yet formulated a coherent policy on Israel, with different advisers pulling him in different directions and his own thoughts apparently still unsettled. Whether it be the embassy move or the role of settlements in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump’s positions from the campaign have shifted, and in the case of settlements they have subtly shifted between the statement issued by Sean Spicer two weeks ago and Trump’s interview with Yisrael HaYom on Friday. What Trump needs while he is sorting through everything else in the Middle East is regional stability, not having Israel as a constant issue to manage, and above all no surprises. For now, he wants Israel to be something that he doesn’t have to think about or worry about, since if that wish is fulfilled, it will be just about the only issue that clears that bar.

What Netanyahu needs out of this meeting is even simpler. He arrives in Washington in the midst of the biggest threat he has ever faced to his tenure as prime minister, namely the four separate investigations being carried out into various allegations of corruption and improper behavior. Should he be indicted, as most Israeli analysts and journalists expect, he will be under enormous pressure to resign, and only the complete and unbroken support from every member of his coalition will keep him in office. Even if none of the four investigations end with an indictment, Netanyahu is still in a precarious position, down in the polls to Yair Lapid and under constant demand from his Bayit Yehudi coalition members and many of his Likud coalition members to definitively reject the two-state solution, support annexation of Ma’ale Adumim and perhaps even larger parts of the West Bank, and to completely alter the paradigm with the Palestinians under which Israel has operated. None of these are things that Netanyahu has ever particularly appeared or appears now to want to do, but he is in danger of being swallowed up by the Israeli right, for whom ideological purity tests are increasingly important. More than any specific policy victory or understanding with Trump, Netanyahu needs something that will help his domestic standing back home, and the only thing that can provide that is a black hole in which no daylight between the U.S. and Israel escapes. Netanyahu was reportedly able to mollify Naftali Bennett and other cabinet members before his departure from Israel by appealing to his stewardship of the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is truly an Israeli existential issue, and he has to return home with an unambiguous demonstration of his ability – and his ability alone – to keep that relationship unbreakable. Netanyahu does not need a green light to build in the West Bank or a commitment to move the embassy or a vow to tear up the Iran deal. What he needs is no hint, no sign, and no leak of even the slightest public or private disagreement with Trump on anything.

In theory, this should be an easy plan for Trump and Netanyahu to execute. The problem is that Netanyahu is dealing with a president whom he expects to be an easier interlocutor than President Obama, but one who is unpredictable and unprepared to an unprecedented degree. Netanyahu cannot be sure what Trump will say, whether what he says can be trusted as an accurate predictor of what policies he will actually pursue down the road, to what extent Israel should rely on Trump’s assurance on various issues for its own policy planning purposes, and whether Trump has even devoted any real attention to planning for the conversation given that his national security adviser will have been replaced less than 48 hours earlier.

Given all of this, the one topic that is guaranteed to be on the agenda is Iran. As my colleague Ilan Goldenberg ably laid out earlier this week in his own preview of the meeting, Trump and Netanyahu have both focused on vigorously holding Iran to task and calling Iran out on its destabilizing actions in the region. It is unlikely that even Netanyahu is sticking to a position that the Iran deal needs to be scrapped, and both men might hold the view that even if the deal should be torn up, there are ways to make Iran be the actor that abrogates it through additional sanctions and testing the boundaries of Iran’s breaking point much as Iran has done since the JCPOA was implemented.

What both leaders want to avoid is any robust discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, settlements, or the two-state solution. Whatever Trump’s positions end up being, they are not going to be the positions pushed by Bennett and the annexation caucus, and Netanyahu cannot politically afford right now to publicly endorse two states. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu wants to start things off with a fight over where Israel will and will not build, and so my hunch is that they will both try and avoid any related subjects to the greatest possible extent.

There are two issues, however, that Trump and Netanyahu should discuss whether they want to or not in an effort to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings down the road. The first is Gaza, where Hamas’s newly installed leader Yahya Sinwar is far more hardline and confrontational than his predecessor Ismail Haniya and may be more willing to break the uneasy quiet that has largely held for two and a half years. It would be wise of the president and the prime minister to discuss how far Israel is willing to go in Gaza when the next war breaks out, what the plan is to deal with any wider regional fallout, and how the U.S. would like to manage a coordinated response with Israel and Egypt. This does not have to be a difficult conversation, and both men may be precisely on the same page, but it is easier to do it now than when the rockets start falling on Tel Aviv and the world is up in arms over civilian casualties in the Gaza war zone. The second issue is Syria, where Trump and Netanyahu may not be on the same page but cannot afford to let any differences of opinion fester. Rhetorically at least, Trump wants to make fighting ISIS in Syria a priority, which will be difficult to do while squaring completely with Israel’s objectives of maintaining its own freedom of movement against Hizballah weapons convoys and not allowing any long-term Iranian presence in Syria. If there will be disagreements on these issues, they should be dealt with up front and in private since any public blow up later will be far worse.

Today’s meeting will be the first of many, and we may not have any greater clarity after it has concluded than we do right now. Many assume that Trump and Netanyahu will set a new standard for the relationship between an American president and Israeli prime minister, but no matter what their personal relationship turns out to be, there is going to be friction over policy issues big and small. The most important question going forward will not be why and where there are disagreements, but how the two men manage them.

Trump’s Time Machine Settlements Policy

February 9, 2017 § 1 Comment

A few weeks into the Trump presidency, the nascent stirrings of an Israel policy appear to be developing. Where President Trump will land on two states, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the embassy move, or the American government’s relations with the Palestinian Authority are still more unclear than not, and will remain murky until his February 15 meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, if not for longer. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s announcement last week that Israel intends to construct a new West Bank settlement for the first time in over two decades prompted a brief missive from the White House on the issue, and it yields some clues that the past may be prologue when it comes to the U.S. and Israel.

The salient sentence of the four contained in the statement is: “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” With the qualification that it is unwise to read too definitively into the White House’s words – it was issued in Sean Spicer’s name rather than the president or national security adviser’s, there is no way of knowing who wrote or influenced it, and no way of knowing whether it represents official policy or was issued off-the-cuff due to the demands of the news cycle – it represents a departure in two ways.

First, it is a clear departure from the Obama administration’s policies on settlements, which should surprise nobody. The people currently serving as the administration’s top Israel advisers – one of whom is now the nominee to be the American ambassador to Israel – are of the view that settlements do not impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and nobody should expect the Trump White House to suddenly embrace a view on settlements to which it has been diametrically opposed. Obama’s stance on settlements was that they are all problematic, no matter where they are located, and his administration included neighborhoods of Jerusalem beyond the Green Line in that calculus. The White House statement is clear that the Trump administration does not view the presence of settlements to be a problem, full stop. This is not only a departure from Obama, but also an unprecedented departure from all previous presidents since 1967, both Republican and Democratic.

Second, the White House statement is a departure from the baseline that many had assumed for the Trump administration, which was that Israel would be given a complete free hand to do whatever it wants in the West Bank. The celebratory atmosphere on the Israeli right, resulting in the exuberance driving the Regulation Law and efforts to annex Ma’ale Adumim, was born out of this assumption. It appears that even the Trump White House has limits, however, that rest on Israel maintaining the territorial status quo (although not the population status quo). This is certainly not a victory for those who have been pining for the Obama policy since noon on January 20, but neither is it a blank check for the Israeli government. It further demonstrates why Israel would have been wise to exercise caution from the start and proceed as if it was operating in an unknown environment rather than throw an indulgent settlements bacchanalia. Instead, it forced Trump’s hand in the first month of his presidency and resulted in a rebuke, no matter that it was as mild as could be.

There is an enormous amount of space between “all settlements are bad” and “settlements are fine as long as their footprint remains static” and the question is where precisely in that space Trump will land. The most likely possibility in my view is a return to the Bush-Sharon understandings, under which construction in the blocs was viewed as implicitly kosher so long as Israel froze construction everywhere else. As I have written time and again, I think such a policy is a good one that would lead to tangible progress toward a fair and viable two-state solution. But it is important to understand what precisely Bush and Sharon agreed to, since the Bush-Sharon letters are often bandied about as shorthand for justifying Israeli building in some places without any real concurrent Israeli obligations to take active measures against other settlements.

In their exchange in April 2004, President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon indeed landed upon a formula in which the U.S. would tolerate construction in the blocs, but it was not a free lunch. The arrangement began with a letter from Sharon, in which he pledged to undertake a number of initiatives and fulfill a set of obligations related to the Roadmap. The one that most remember is that Israel would disengage from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, but that was not the end of the quid pro quo. Sharon also wrote, “In this regard, we are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements; removal of unauthorized outposts; and steps to increase, to the extent permitted by security needs, freedom of movement for Palestinians not engaged in terrorism.” In return for this complete package, Bush declared it unrealistic for Israel to return to the Green Line without acknowledging “new realities on the ground” in the form of “already existing major Israeli population centers.”

There is no scenario in which the Regulation Law passed by the Knesset this week does not obliterate any good faith commitment on Israel’s part to limit the growth of settlements or remove unauthorized outposts. It is, in fact, purposely designed to do the precise opposite. This is why the government’s actions this week are so damaging to even getting back to the deal reached with the last Republican administration. It is possible given Trump’s apparent preferences and Israel’s long-standing frustration with outsiders who make no distinction between different types of settlements to return to the Bush 43 policy, even despite the fact that the population of the blocs has enormously increased in the last decade. But it is incumbent for those who want to see such a policy emerge to also demand that the other side of the ledger is complete; namely, that the Israeli government not only halt settlement growth elsewhere, but take active steps to remove settlements that have been illegal under Israeli law from the start. This does indeed involve regulation, but not the kind that the Knesset appears to envision.

How To Rebalance The Shifting Settlement Debate

February 2, 2017 § Leave a comment

Over the last couple of years, a disturbing and worrisome shift has taken place in Israeli political discourse. For decades, the prevailing debate within Israel over the West Bank was about maintaining the status quo versus withdrawing in some form. Before Oslo, withdrawal was largely discussed in terms of a federation between Jordan and the Palestinians in the West Bank, and after Oslo it shifted to the idea of a Palestinian state. But whether it was in the context of negotiations or of unilateral withdrawal – as was done by Ariel Sharon in Gaza – the debate has been over maintaining the current status of temporary military occupation in the West Bank or leaving it.

This is no longer the case. Between the Regulation Bill that would legalize currently illegal outposts, the push by Naftali Bennett and other MKs in Bayit Yehudi and Likud to annex first Ma’ale Adumim and then the rest of Area C, Tuesday’s announcement of another 3,000 homes in the West Bank, and yesterday’s statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu that he will build a new settlement to replace the evacuated Amona, it is clear that the debate over the West Bank has a new center of gravity. Rather than policy arguments over the status quo or easing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the new fault line is between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank. The reasons for this shift are numerous, from the disappointing failures of Oslo to the bloodshed and terror of the Second Intifada to a more rightwing population and Knesset. The result, however, is that Israel is entering a dangerous period where the government is perilously close to the point of no return. This only reinforces why a saner policy on settlements must emerge, that combines an understanding of what Israelis will accept politically while preserving the possibility for two states, and it must start with a focus on the settlement blocs.

Shaul Arieli wrote brilliantly last week about why annexation of the West Bank would be so dangerous, using the example of Jerusalem as a canvas for what precisely will go wrong. In the current environment, with the prospect of successful negotiations as dormant as ever, separation without withdrawal – as advocated by the Commanders for Israel’s Security – is the way forward, as it maintains Israel’s hold on the blocs while laying the foundation for Israel to one day in the future cede the rest. But this only works in keeping Israel secure, Jewish, and democratic if the distinction between the blocs and everything else is maintained. Otherwise, separation does not – to use the infamous term – create facts on the ground in support of two states but instead contravenes it. Employing an inviolable bright line between the blocs and the rest of the West Bank is also critical to Israel’s credibility; increasingly fewer governments and international observers will buy the rhetoric that settlements are not the primary obstacle to peace when the government is building up areas outside of any reasonable consensus of what Israel will keep in a deal. Not only will this be a better policy, it will eliminate some of Israel’s public opinion headaches and lessen the chances of future nasty diplomatic surprises in the vein of UNSCR 2334.

There are two steps that should be taken right away in order to rebalance the conversation over settlements and Israeli policy. The first is for the Netanyahu government to actually define what it views as blocs. The debate surrounding settlements right now is rife with purposeful misunderstanding, as everyone talks about the blocs as if they have been divinely decreed when the truth is that they mean different things to different people. Most everyone would include the blocs in the Jerusalem triangle – Givat Ze’ev, Ma’ale Adumim, Gush Etzion – along with Modi’in Illit and Alfei Menashe, areas that have the largest Jewish populations and are close to the Green Line. But there are other large population centers that cut farther into the West Bank, such as Ariel, or smaller population centers that encroach on large Palestinian cities, such as the Kedumim finger. Netanyahu himself has said that he envisions Beit El and Kiryat Arba as parts of blocs too, which takes us into the realm of the absurd. If any government is going to adopt a policy of building in the blocs to the exclusion of the rest, it first must adopt a hard definition of what it views as blocs.

Second, once the official Israel view of the blocs is set forth, the borders of those blocs must be defined. For instance, Ma’ale Adumim is the part of the West Bank that is least controversial in the eyes of most Israelis; it is hard to find virtually anyone who does not envision it as part of Israel one day, which is why it is the first target in the current annexation push. But the land slated to be annexed along with Ma’ale Adumim encompasses an area six times that of the settlement itself, and those borders include E-1, which has been a redline for both the U.S. and the European Union. Building in E-1 will destroy Palestinian contiguity in the West Bank by cutting off any direct access between Ramallah and Bethlehem, which is why it is such a big deal and why neither Sharon nor Netanyahu has taken that step. If Israel is to build in blocs while freezing the rest, does Ma’ale Adumim include its entire current municipal border? As another example, does the border of the Givat Ze’ev bloc include Beit Horon, which incorporates more Palestinian villages and agricultural land to get another 1000 Jews inside the border? Do the borders of the blocs remain fixed, or do they constantly expand to allow for natural growth? It is very easy to abuse the notion of building inside the blocs without knowing exactly what the borders of the blocs are.

Israel has to make a choice about what its core strategic interests are. Does it want to move toward a sustainable position in the West Bank that incorporates the overwhelming majority of settlers while maintaining somewhere upwards of 95% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, or does it want to try and incorporate 60% or even all of the West Bank into Israel? One of the reasons that the announcement two days ago of new construction is so damaging – perhaps even more so than the Regulation Bill, which will be struck down by the High Court if passed – is because some of it is outside the blocs, which is doubly counterproductive by raising the temperature on the settlement issue writ large and seriously calling into question not only the Israeli government’s motives but the continuing viability of a Jewish and democratic Israel.

I have spent days in all parts of the West Bank over the past half year seeing the precise layout of settlements and topography with my own eyes. Territorial contiguity for a Palestinian state is still very possible and can be maintained while incorporating nearly all of the settlers into Israel, but only if Israel immediately takes the steps outlined here. Otherwise we slide quickly down a slippery slope that only ends with an Israeli defense of annexing all of Area C because of new facts on the ground that make doing anything less infeasible, and that is not a day that I ever want to see. The only way to ward this off is to reshift the debate away from annexation, and this is how to start doing it.

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