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.