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.

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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.

UNSCR 2334

December 27, 2016 § 16 Comments

In the wake of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, there are two points that need to be emphasized. The first has to do with the resolution itself, the second with how we got here and where it will lead. Both are important, and it is impossible to completely understand either in isolation.

Point one is that UNSCR 2334 is a deeply flawed resolution that should not have passed and that will only make matters worse. This is not because Israel should get the benefit of an American veto no matter what it does, or because settlements are little more than a distraction from the real issues. It is because this particular resolution laid out a line regarding settlements that the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not and cannot accept, treating the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and Amona as one and the same. It is because it made absolutely no mention of the fact that one of the two territories that will make up a Palestinian state is controlled by a terrorist group that poses a far larger obstacle to a permanent solution than any single Israeli settlement. It is because it betrayed a complete and total misunderstanding of the state of Israeli politics and created an immediate incentive for this Israeli government to build anywhere it wants with total abandon. It is because it provided succor to the BDS movement, which is not interested in altering Israeli behavior but in altering Israel itself. It is because it offended Jews across the globe by treating Judaism’s holiest site as occupied territory. To put it bluntly, when expanding the Western Wall plaza is deemed an illegal and illegitimate act of an occupying power, something has gone way off the rails. That this resolution was more balanced than previous ones does not make it objectively balanced, and to assert that anyone who opposes it is ipso facto a shill for settlements misses the reasons why it is problematic.

Contrary to many people whom I respect who have argued that this will be the first step in halting Israeli settlement activity and putting the two-state solution on a firmer footing, I believe the opposite will be the case. By not adopting a policy that distinguishes between settlements, the incentives now run the wrong way. This is an Israeli government that is ideologically committed to building in the West Bank, but were the United States and the broader international community to institute a system by which Israel could build unfettered within the blocs – contingent upon Israel laying down hard borders defining the blocs absolutely – in return for a complete and total freeze outside of them, it would do more to enshrine two states than any UN resolution or sanction could possibly accomplish. The plan from Commanders for Israel’s Security to complete the security barrier and freeze all construction to its east is as wise a policy as exists. If such an understanding were reached and Israel violated it, I would be all for coming down on the Israeli government like a ton of bricks.

Instead, the net effect of what this resolution actually did is to convince Israelis that the world is out to get them no matter what they do, and provide a fresh tailwind to hardline efforts led by Habayit Hayehudi and much of Likud to annex Area C outright. After all, if Gilo and Alon Shvut are no different than Ofra, why bother to make any distinctions at all and suffer a domestic political cost? The countdown has now officially started not only toward a serious push to annex much of the West Bank, but also toward Israel building in previously untouchable places like E-1 and Givat Hamatos. Once that happens, we really will have crossed the Rubicon absent an enormous upheaval. The passage of this resolution makes that crossing a lot closer than it was before Friday.

Point two is that you can inveigh against President Obama all you want, but the one who actually owns this debacle is Prime Minister Netanyahu. If you truly want to be upset at someone, direct your ire at him. When he says that Israel had a commitment from the U.S. for diplomatic protection, he is right, but he entirely elides the reality that this is not a blank check that exists in perpetuity irrespective of changed circumstances. Let’s leave aside for a moment the terribly inconvenient fact that before Friday, Obama was the first post-1967 U.S. president to never allow a resolution targeting Israel to get through the Security Council, making the claims of this being unprecedented utter tripe. When Obama vetoed a similar resolution in 2011, it was before Netanyahu publicly said that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch; before Netanyahu created a governing coalition comprised of a majority of MKs who are on record as opposing two states; and before Netanyahu rhetorically supported and voted for a Knesset bill legalizing illegal West Bank construction that his own attorney-general denounced as violating both Israeli and international law. In Netanyahu’s estimation, is there any line at all that he could cross that would nullify an American commitment to wield its veto on Israel’s behalf? The extremely flawed resolution itself now allows Netanyahu to issue jeremiads against those who would try and remove a Jewish connection to the Western Wall, but it is not Israel’s presence in the Jewish Quarter that led to this move at the UN. Netanyahu brought his country to this point, either never believing the myriad warning signs he received or knowing that this was coming and thinking that it did not matter. Either way, it gives him the ignominious distinction of presiding over a disastrous diplomatic failure that was entirely predictable and entirely avoidable.

Furthermore, this episode reveals the hollowness of Netanyahu’s arguments about Israel’s place in the world. After spending years touting lines about Israel never being less isolated, how the world cares about Israeli high tech to the exclusion of anything it does in the West Bank, and that mutual interests over countering Iran and fighting Islamist terrorism make the conflict with the Palestinians irrelevant, it turns out that the joke is on the prime minister. Look at the countries that voted in favor of this resolution – not abstained like the U.S. did, but actually voted in favor. Egypt, which is supposed to be Israel’s close regional ally and a country about which we are told that fighting ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood together with Israel outweighs everything else. Great Britain, which under the Conservative leadership of Theresa May was supposed to be Israel’s great supporter in Europe. Russia, which allegedly cares more about purchasing Israeli drones than about anything Israel is doing with regard to two states. China, which also supposedly does not care about the Palestinians but only wants to increase trade ties with Israel and benefit from Israeli ingenuity. All 14 countries that cast votes on Friday cast them the same way. All of these countries, counted upon as some of Israel’s closest relations, stated loudly and clearly that they will not compartmentalize settlements and Palestinian issues from their larger dealings with Israel. That is a fact, and no amount of Netanyahu spin about Start-Up Nation and desalination plants can change that.

Netanyahu’s statement on Sunday calling the vote “the swan song of the old world” and heralding a new era in which a heavy price will be exacted by Israel against countries that oppose its policies could not possibly be more obtuse. You have to seriously lack a semblance of self-awareness to issue a statement like that. This is not a blip on the radar, and it will not be an isolated event should Israel continue down its current path. As rightly proud as Israelis and many American Jews are of Israel’s economic successes and military strength, it is not a world power and it cannot afford to behave like one. Threatening countries like Senegal and Ukraine while studiously avoiding eye contact with China and Russia is the hallmark of a paper tiger, and does not make Israel look any stronger coming out of this episode.

The Israeli government simply cannot have it both ways. Either you get to do what you like, the rest of the world be damned, but you accept the consequences of your actions, or you recognize that no action is taken in isolation and you change your behavior to avoid the consequences even if your principles dictate otherwise. Netanyahu has to choose which road he wants to tread. The choice seems like an obvious one to me, but even for those who disagree, do not make the mistake of thinking that Netanyahu and Israel do not have to choose. Be angry about the UN’s moral bankruptcy and be frustrated with the Obama administration’s myopic decision making; I share those sentiments. But no matter what, if you take one thing away from UNSCR 2334, it must be that the mantra of “settlements don’t matter” is an apocryphal myth. In the real world, actions have consequences.

The Legalization Bill Is Not Just About Settlements

December 8, 2016 § 5 Comments

The Regulation Bill, which aims to legalize thousands of homes in the West Bank built on private Palestinian land and that passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset on Monday and a first reading yesterday, is a disaster for more reasons than I can list in one place. But that’s no excuse not to try. So (deep breath):

To start with the glaringly obvious, legalizing thousands of homes inside existing recognized settlements and legalizing fifty-five illegal outposts makes a permanent status agreement resulting in a two-state solution farther away than it has been at any time since before Oslo. It hardens Israel’s presence in the West Bank to a degree that makes it impossible to envision a withdrawal of civilians that will not result in violence and bloodshed or exact a crushing emotional toll. Given the location of these outposts, it also enormously complicates what is the best way in the current environment to create a de facto two-state solution on the ground – namely, the plan from Commanders for Israel’s Security to freeze expansion east of the security barrier and renounce any claims to Israeli sovereignty in that territory. Should it pass and become law, the Regulation Bill not only makes negotiations down the road that much harder, it eviscerates Israel’s own unilateral options. It is self-binding in the worst sort of way, since it does not do anything productive in deterring an enemy or reassuring an ally – which is the purpose of the self-binding contained in the North Atlantic Treaty, for instance – but instead creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom for Israel’s future. You need to have zero regard for your political successors or for your own political independence to take an action that boxes you in like this to one and only one trajectory going forward.

The bill also puts the lie to long-standing Israeli claims about settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu gives no quarter in claiming that settlements are in no way the issue in preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace. He instead argues that they are a smokescreen that the other side hides behind to mask its refusal to accept Israel’s legitimacy. Netanyahu has also gotten lots of mileage from his claim that Israel has not authorized any new settlements on his watch, relying on the fact that most outside observers do not know how illegal settlement activity has proliferated. But that rhetorical flight of fancy is now gone for good. Plenty of people, myself included, have never seen settlements as the core issue behind the conflict, but recognize that they are in fact an enormous obstacle and not anything that can be blithely dismissed as insignificant. When you throw any and all restraint to the wind, however, and let settlements swallow up everything else, they become a core issue. Imagine a Palestinian living in Area C whose home is one of the 11,000 structures under a demolition order for having been built without a permit, and he wakes up to see that with a stroke of a pen Israeli homes in the exact same situation are now deemed legal. If you think that his anger is motivated by a desire to drive Tel Avivians into the sea rather than the blatant discrimination and injustice to which he is being directly subjected, you are deluding yourself.

But it is more than just arguing about the role of settlements that is at stake here. I have enormous sympathy for settlers who moved to the West Bank because they were repeatedly encouraged to do so by the government and were provided all sorts of financial incentives to go. They cannot and should not be hung out to dry. Legalizing what was blatantly illegal activity, however, creates a completely different and perverse set of incentives, and accelerates a moral hazard problem that will become impossible to overcome. We are talking about Israelis who moved onto private Palestinian land without permits and without explicit or clear government approval, and even though the bill as drafted only retroactively legalizes the activity if they didn’t know they were building on private land, it now makes everything they did completely consequence-free. There is no reason from now on for anyone to heed the laws or directives of the Israeli government with regard to building in the West Bank, since the precedent has been set that it will be treated as perfectly fine and that someone else will bear the costs. This decimates the rule of law and encourages a wide range of bad behavior that cannot be put back in the box.

The Regulation Bill also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be democratic. A majoritarian theory of democracy, in which leaders and parties that win elections get to do anything they please with no checks and balances, is precisely what political philosophers and creators of longstanding democracies like Great Britain and the United States feared. It is why checks and balances and separation of powers exist. Supporters of this bill seem to think that its almost-certain rejection by the High Court is a sign that the High Court is undemocratic because it is thwarting the will of the people, or that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s determination that the bill is unconstitutional does not matter because nobody elected him. This is precisely how democracies turn into populist non-democracies controlled by demagogues, and supporters of Israel who dismiss this attitude as irrelevant do so at their own peril.

Finally, the legalism being used to justify the Regulation Bill is reaching Orwellian heights, and should not be viewed as anything positive. One of the ironies of the three Soviet constitutions was that they guaranteed a wider range of rights than Western constitutions; if an alien landed on Earth and read the Soviet Union’s constitutional and legal documents, it would assume that the Soviet Union was the most free and liberal country on the planet. For similar reasons, countries in which elections do not matter to the transfer of political power almost all go to great lengths to hold elections and make big shows of how they are respecting the will of the people. A patina of legality is used to legitimize that which is illegitimate. I am not suggesting that Israel is an authoritarian country, and it shares no resemblance to the totalitarian Soviet Union. But the focus on what is narrowly legal – the structures being legalized must have been built with no direct knowledge that they were built on private land, there had to have been implicit or explicit government or municipal support – is designed to make what happens appear as if it is above board. It is not. To seize private land without authorization and pay the landowners compensation whether they are willing to cede their land or not is not legal, full stop. The Israeli High Court does not view it as legal. The Israeli attorney general does not view it as legal. No source of international law views it as legal. Tying it up with a phony legal bow almost makes the entire thing worse.

Make no mistake about what this is. It is not an attempt to right wrongs. It is not an attempt to administer fair and impartial justice. Naftali Bennett, to his credit, has not been cagey but has said what this is proudly and clearly: “The Israeli Knesset shifted from a path to establish a Palestinian state, to a path of extending sovereignty to Judea and Samaria. Let there be no doubt, the Regulation Bill is what will spearhead the extension of [Israeli] sovereignty.” The bill will not pass the High Court and will not become law, but what it says about the current state of political affairs in Israel is as disturbing as anything that has happened since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. It is an attempt to radically overhaul Israel’s system of democracy, and that it is playing out in the Knesset does not make it any more democratic.

Paying the Piper

December 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

The Israeli government this week is debating making two sets of extraordinary payments to different groups. Both payments are in some part necessary, but the story they tell about Israel is not a hopeful one. Indeed, they are an encapsulation of why so many, both inside Israel and out, harbor immense frustration with Israel’s political leadership.

The first set of payments is in response to the fires that ravaged Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, and other pockets of Israel over the past week. The initial suspicion was that the primary cause of the fires was arson, and the Israeli government arrested thirty five suspects, a majority of whom were Arab citizens of Israel. Deliberately torching homes and forests for nationalist motives can certainly be considered terrorism, and the government moved quickly to treat it as such, with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan calling to demolish perpetrators’ homes and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri floating the idea that arsonists’ Israeli citizenship should be revoked. Of more immediate consequence, a number of ministers and MKs called for the government to compensate everyone whose homes and belongings were damaged by the fires, and the Israel Tax Authority on Tuesday ruled that the fires were universally the result of arson. The reason this is important is that the state only has to compensate citizens who suffered financial losses as a result of terrorism; if you lost your home due to wildfires, such as the ones that ravaged the Carmel forest in 2010, then you are covered by private insurance and not entitled to complete restitution from the state. In this case, despite the fact that the Fire and Rescue Authority deemed only 25 of the 1,773 fires to be arson and the Israeli police initially believe that the fires in Haifa – where the most damage occurred – were not arson-related, by moving to cover all losses the government is creating a narrative of Israel under assault from a terrorist fire intifada.

My objection to this is not because I have any desire to see Israelis who lost their homes in a terrible fire be abandoned by the state. It is also not because I think criminal arsonists acting out of nationalist motives are in any way justified or are anything but terrorists. It is because there is another and far more accurate story to tell here, and it is one that does not paint a picture of Israeli society breaking apart because Jews cannot trust Arabs not to burn their country to the ground. Leaving aside the fact that it now appears that deliberate arson was a drop in the bucket compared to weather and environmental factors, the real story of these fires is the cooperation that ensued between Israel and its neighbors and between different segments of Israeli society. The dominant theme is Jews and Arabs helping each other out, rather than Jews and Arabs at each other’s throats. The Palestinian Authority sent eight fire trucks and forty four firefighters to help bring the fires under control, prompting a thank you call from Prime Minister Netanyahu to President Abbas. Even more encouragingly, firefighters from Ramallah helped put out the fires in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, rather than limiting their assistance to fires inside the Green Line. Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey all sent personnel or equipment. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs crossed community lines to host their fellow citizens in their homes, regardless of religion or politics. Yes, there was deliberate arson. Yes, many people on social media were celebrating Jews being burned. These things should not be papered over as if they are irrelevant. But by rushing to declare the entirety of the fires as a terrorist attack that requires the state to compensate every effected Israeli, the government is elevating the smallest and most unsavory part of the story and making sure that it subsumes the far larger and more important part. Rather than seizing on hope, the government is seizing on fear, and guaranteeing that the 2016 fires will be remembered as the latest example of terrorism rather than as an encouraging example of true partnership and cooperation.

The second set of payments being debated this week involves another group that has been deliberately wronged, and in this case as well the government is rushing to pay compensation to people who should never have to be compensated. Despite the fact that Moshe Kahlon’s opposition temporarily derailed it yesterday, the bill to retroactively legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land and pay compensation to the Palestinian landowners is still moving forward, and will only be stopped by a High Court ruling or Netanyahu suddenly developing some political and moral courage on this issue. There is no question that if the government manages to legalize what is blatantly and indisputably illegal that the Palestinians affected need to be fairly compensated. But nobody should celebrate not stiffing the landowners outright as an example of Israeli justice or fair play. The juxtaposition of Israeli MKs who think that it is fine to take revenge on Palestinians who have rendered land uninhabitable for Jews – such as Oren Hazan, who actually held up a lighter in the Knesset and demanded “an eye for an eye” – against the majority of MKs who think that it is fine to render land uninhabitable for Palestinians by illegally taking it and then just paying for it afterwards is particularly jarring.

If the government is so intent on paying people to vacate land in the West Bank, it should move the settlers in places like Amona – who were encouraged by the government to go there and were led to believe that they would never have to pick up and leave – and compensate them for their detrimental reliance on explicit and implicit promises made by successive Israeli governments. Much like the compensation for people who lost everything to wildfires and arson, the government thinks that compensating Palestinians who lost their land puts Israel in a positive light when in fact it does the opposite. Rather than instill faith that the Israeli government will do the right thing, it instills faith that the Israeli government will take a bad situation and somehow make it even worse.

Bibi’s Trump Dilemma

November 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

Natan Sachs and I argue today in Foreign Affairs that despite the jubilation on the Israeli right at Trump’s election, it actually creates some real political problems for Bibi Netanyahu.

On November 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated President-elect Donald Trump through a video message, in which the Israeli leader could barely contain his giddiness at the prospect of a friendlier White House. The ruling Israeli right-wing coalition, which sees Trump as a potential champion of Greater Israel, believes that the United States’ next president will finally remove any outside constraints on settlement construction in the West Bank or the legalization of already existing settlements built without governmental approval. Settlement-friendly politicians in Israel are already working hard on such moves; on Wednesday, a bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land passed its first reading in the Knesset, despite the objections of the attorney general and a near certain rejection by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Some in Israel even view the next four years as an opportunity to annex the West Bank outright. This is a “tremendous opportunity to announce a renunciation of the idea of founding a Palestinian state in the heart of the land,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, stated. “The era of the Palestinian state is over.”

It’s not clear what Trump will do, of course, nor whether he even knows his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the campaign, he initially said that he would like to remain a “neutral guy”—a contrast to decades of U.S. policy that his tilted toward Israel—but he later shifted to a more traditional pro-Israel stance. To the delight of the Israeli right, the Republican platform omitted any mention of a two-state solution. And since the election, the co-chairs of Trump’s Israel advisory committee have reiterated controversial statements about Trump moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. They’ve also said that Trump does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace. At the same time, Trump himself told The Wall Street Journal of his desire to close the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. “As a dealmaker, I’d like to do … the deal that can’t be made,” he said. “And do it for humanity’s sake.”

Despite the myriad conflicting signals, it is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu will now have a freer hand to implement the policies he desires with regard to settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. Politically speaking, he may no longer have to run the gauntlet between a coalition that demands more building in the West Bank and a White House that insists on less.

But Netanyahu may soon find out that he needs to be careful with what he wishes for. Freedom from U.S. pressure would be a mixed blessing. Rather than solving his problems, it could cost him his political leverage, his ability to play two-level games.

Head over to Foreign Affairs to read the rest of the piece.

Trump and the Virtues of Israeli Caution

November 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

The Israeli right has embraced Donald Trump’s election as if the country has been granted a new lease on life. Naftali Bennett has declared the end of the era of the Palestinian state and shared his view that Trump’s election is an opportunity to restructure the entire region. Ofir Akunis has called for a new round of settlement construction. Yoav Kish has said that it is time to stop talking about two states. In general, there is a mood of exhilaration on the right driven by a sense that come January 20, President Trump will give Israel leeway to anything it pleases.

For a government that has been frustrated by President Obama for eight years, it is easy to understand the temptation to throw caution to the wind and move full steam ahead on settlement building and creating a new paradigm vis-à-vis the Palestinians. If yesterday’s preliminary approval of the bill legalizing settlements built on private Palestinian land is an indication of what’s to come, Israel is about to embark on a path that eliminates any ambiguity about its intentions. The government of Israel has every right to do what it pleases, of course. But doing so would be an enormous mistake. Taking a myopic approach and racking up as many short term wins as possible before the winds shift will only harm Israel in the long term, and would be a continuation of allowing tactics to win out over strategy.

For starters, assuming that Trump does indeed give Israel an unencumbered hand to deal with the West Bank and the Palestinians (more on this assumption in a moment), the United States is not the only relevant actor in this drama. Israel has spent years fending off sanctions from Europe over settlement activity, and the labeling controversy of earlier this year will seem like child’s play compared to what will come if Israel does indeed annex part of the West Bank. Israel has touted its improving ties with Sunni Arab states, but as tenuous as these relationships already are, they will disappear completely if Israel is viewed as destroying any chances of Palestinian sovereignty once and for all. Russia, which has enormous leverage over Israel at the moment given its role in Syria and its willingness to look the other way when Israel targets Hizballah weapons shipments, is also unlikely to respond well to Israel formally ending a two-state policy. In short, while any American administration will always be Israel’s top concern, it is never the only one.

And even if it were, the fact is that nobody – neither in Israel nor here – actually has any concrete idea what a Trump administration’s Israel policy will be. The panoply of conflicting signals and statements from Trump and his advisers on topics such as the wisdom of pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, whether the American embassy will be moved to Jerusalem, or if Israel is at fault for the current impasse or if it is only the Palestinians, means that predictions about what Trump will support or tolerate are speculative at best. While I’d say that he will take more rightwing positions on Israel were I forced to bet, I also think it is safe to say that he does not have deeply held ideological beliefs on the subject. If, for instance, Trump wants to get Sunni buy-in on a Syria policy that effectively strengthens Iran and the price in return is cracking down on Israeli building over the Green Line (an unlikely but not impossible scenario), is anyone confident that he won’t sacrifice his Israel policy for a more pressing regional priority? If Israel commits itself to a policy in the West Bank that is even more encouraging of building anywhere and everywhere – or moves toward outright annexation – on the assumption that Trump will not pose an obstacle, it may find itself in a deep hole with no way out. Avigdor Lieberman seems to recognize the potential danger, urging his government to strike a deal with Trump that allows building inside the blocs while freezing it everywhere else rather than build everywhere with abandon, but there is no indication that any other coalition members have the same presence of mind.

Just as there is no way of knowing what comes with Trump, there is no way of knowing what comes after Trump. Given the radical departure that President Obama represented from the Bush era, and the radical departure that President-elect Trump represents from the Obama era, and the seemingly permanent hunger of the American electorate for change from whatever currently reigns in Washington, it is reasonable to assume that the 46th president will have very different views from the 45th. If Israel builds so much in the West Bank over the next four – or possibly eight – years to destroy any possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state, it might find itself under fire from the next president from day one. Shutting off the possibility of changing course when there is a new administration is foolhardy.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the majority of American Jews are rigidly opposed to Trump, and it creates an awkward situation if the Israeli government treats Trump as its long-awaited savior when most American Jews view him with extreme distaste. This is not to say that Israel should exhibit any disdain for Trump; it must have the best relationship with any U.S. president that it can. But there is a difference between staying on Trump’s good side and anointing him as the second coming of Cyrus the Great. If Israel cares a lick about the opinions of the 76% of American Jews who did not vote for Trump and views American Jews as an important national security asset for Israel, it will not embrace Trump in a bear hug.

Were I the Israeli prime minister, I would use Trump’s ascent to the presidency as an opportunity to reset the foundation of the relationship with my most important and only irreplaceable ally. The Netanyahu government should make the most out of the fact that there will certainly be less public conflict and disagreement with Trump than there has been with Obama to reinforce how valuable Israel is as an intelligence and military partner, and to reinforce to American Jews that the U.S.-Israel alliance rests on democratic values and ideological affinity above all else. Seizing on Trump’s willingness to look the other way on settlements and thus plowing ahead with a narrow domestic political agenda will be squandering a larger space to think strategically about Israel’s geostrategic position, and will inevitably lead to negative consequences down the road.

Nobody should be naïve about what is likely to happen next. Talking about two states, the peace process, and a resumption of negotiations as remotely imminent given the two governments about to be in place borders on delusion. It is also important to note that this is not solely a Trump-related phenomenon; measures such as the Amona-related settlement legalization bill, despite the Washington Post’s strange framing of it as being spurred directly by the election, have been in the works for months. This does not mean giving up making the case again and again for why two states are necessary, but expectations have to be properly calibrated. Nevertheless, the Israeli government should think long and hard before taking the plunge toward using a Trump presidency to kill two states for good. Things that seem too good to be true almost always are.

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