At the risk of sounding like a broken record, treating all settlements as equal in the eyes of the United States is a dangerous game. The reason is that if all settlements are the same, then the consequences of settlement building become radically different depending on who is in charge. This has been an argument that rested largely on theory rather than practice, but we are now seeing some evidence emerge to back it up. This reinforces the point that differentiating between settlements based on type and location would lead to better outcomes than the longstanding American practice of seeing them all as the same.
The Israeli government is set to approve thousands of new settlement units next week when the Civil Administration’s planning committee meets. Approving settlement construction is not new; what is new in this case is that for the first time in fifteen years, settlement units will be approved in Hebron, and over half of the units expected to be approved or retroactively authorized are outside of the blocs. Building in the West Bank happens under every president; the number of housing units built under President Obama was about 13,000, compared to 14,636 under President George W. Bush, although under Obama there were even more housing starts. During the Obama administration, all settlements were considered one and the same, and there was no distinction between blocs that Israel is expected to keep in a peace agreement and everything else. Since the response from the administration to any type of settlement construction was the same – and since it is entirely politically infeasible in Israel for a prime minister from either the right or the left to cease settlement construction entirely – the Israeli response was to not even attempt confining building to the blocs because there was no benefit to doing so. In Obama’s case, treating all settlements as the same in terms of opprobrium did not lead to Israel limiting its building, although it did lead to Israel staying away from the most contentious places, such as Hebron, or crossing the redlines of E-1 and Givat Hamatos.
We are now seeing what happens under the same policy from President Trump, and it looks a lot worse. Like Obama, Trump also views all settlements as the same, but unlike a left of center president who views them all as equally problematic, Trump views them all as equal in a different way. Since there is no distinction between the blocs and everything else, building in Hebron is not a problem because it is no different than building in Modi’in Ilit. There is no reason to limit building by location and potential harm down the road since the president does not see any difference as to where they are. He has indicated that he does not want Israel to go overboard, whatever that may mean, but it has to do with overall numbers rather than with the map. And when it comes to settlements, the map is actually a lot more important and consequential than the overall numbers. One hundred units in one place are exponentially worse than one thousand settlement units in another. And thus the policy of treating all settlements as equal in the hopes that it will lead Israel to limit building under one type of president becomes an absolute disaster under another type of president.
What makes this particularly tragic is that there is evidence that Trump actually was leaning toward adopting a policy that differentiated between types of settlement building, and Netanyahu boasted to settler leaders of talking him out of it. The reason he did so is simple and obvious; he knew that Trump was going to take a much softer line on settlement construction writ large, and that the U.S. recognizing a distinction between blocs and everything else would be the single thing that would most limit the construction that the harder line settlers and politicians want in the West Bank. Building inside the blocs – assuming that their precise borders are defined and confined to currently built-up areas – does little to doom a two-state solution, whereas building anywhere a Yesha Council leader wants to throw up a new settlement does. By torpedoing a policy that appears on the face of it to take a more permissive stance on settlements, Netanyahu actually ensured that Israeli settlement policies will now be more pernicious.
This is best seen by considering a counterfactual in the current case, and assuming a scenario in which the Trump administration had told the Israeli government that it will treat the blocs one way and everything outside the blocs another way. We would likely see accelerated building in the blocs, but Israel would completely avoid construction in places like Hebron, Negohot, or Ma’ale Michmash, which are either in particularly inflammatory spots or threaten to destroy Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank. This would evince a recognition that reality on the ground has changed – for better or worse, and whether objectively fair or not – and that a successful policy has to be constructed based on containing the damage that is already a sunk cost and trying to look ahead, rather than futilely trying to return to the status quo ante. There is absolutely no question that there is moral hazard involved here that threatens to enable future destructive Israeli actions on the theory that the U.S. will retroactively tolerate them after the fact. But it is the flip side of acknowledging other facts on the ground that go against Israel and that involve moral hazard in favor of the Palestinians, such as rezoning 3% of Area C to Area B in order to legalize over 11,000 Palestinian structures built without permits and now subject to demolition in order to avoid leaving over 200,000 Palestinians homeless. In that case, the worry exists that Palestinians will keep on building without permits in Area C as a way of forcing Israel to rezone more and more land in the future, but much like retroactively sanctioning building in blocs to which the U.S. has up until now objected, the policy benefits outweigh the moral hazard risks.
In contrast with Israeli defiance under Obama, public and reported private statements from Netanyahu and from his cabinet ministers have repeatedly indicated their reluctance to cross Trump on the settlements issues and any White House redlines. This is why not creating a bright shining line between units in the blocs and units outside them was such a wasted opportunity. Had Obama adopted this policy, perhaps Netanyahu would have ignored him, but Trump would have likely retained the same approach, leading to a different outcome. Ultimately, the fundamental point is that a policy’s workability should not be contingent on having a president in office with whom you agree or trust. Anything can be easily distorted to have consequences at odds with what one would like to see. The U.S. should have adopted a differentiated settlements policy a long time ago. In not doing so, the United States gave rise to consequences that will be far more severe.