An hour into the daily White House press briefing, when it seemed that Israel’s decision to plan and build 2,500 new housing units in the settlements was not going to come up, a reporter asked Press Secretary Sean Spicer what the Trump administration’s response was to that move.
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Contrary to the fondest fantasies of the settlers over the past few weeks, Spicer did not welcome the announcement of construction in the settlements. However, neither did he condemn it. More than anything else, the question seemed to pain him. He responded only that President Donald Trump will discuss the issue of settlement building with Prime Minister Netanyahu at their meeting in Washington next month.
A few days after Trump took office, the impression that the president and his people perceive the Israeli-Palestinian issue as one of the more sensitive ones on his desk is becoming clear. In the two briefings Spicer has held since Trump was sworn in, he was asked six times about issues involving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In each instance, Spicer gave laconic answers and did all he could to move on to the next topic.
The measured response to the Israeli-Palestinian issue was also prominent in confirmation hearings for Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis and the next UN ambassador, Nikki Haley. Contrary to the messages we heard during the campaign, none of them spoke like a Habayit Hayehudi voter, and not even like a Likud one. Mattis said the policy he knowns is that the capital of Israel is Tel Aviv, Tillerson made do with a weak statement that UN Resolution 2334 was “not helpful,” and Haley adopted the two-state solution and said she supports the longtime bipartisan policy that opposes construction of settlements.
That is not to say that there has been no change in the White House with regard to the settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. With Barack Obama, the decision to build 2,500 housing units in the settlements, if Netanyahu would even dare make it, would have led to the harshest public condemnations and perhaps more.
Trump’s White House does not think the settlements are not legal and prefers to discuss the matter through private channels. Netanyahu’s room to maneuver in Washington on the Palestinian issue has no doubt grown, but it is far from being the bonanza the settler lobby in Jerusalem was dreaming of. With that as the starting point, it’s not certain that dreams of annexation are practical. At least not at this point.
The Prime Minister’s Bureau firmly declined on Tuesday to respond to the question of whether Netanyahu had informed Trump of the decision to approve such massive construction in the settlements. Just the day before, in a meeting of the Likud faction in the Knesset, Netanyahu stressed to Likud lawmakers that a mistake vis-a-vis Trump in the upcoming period could cause damage to Israel. He spoke of the close ties of trust he and Trump have with each other warned against unthinking actions that could lead the relationship in a negative direction.
After such statements, it is hard to believe that Netanyahu surprised the president. It may be assumed that he explained to Trump in their phone call Sunday his political situation in terms of pressure from the right and asked for some leeway. This time he got it. But leeway is not unlimited. Trump has placed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process higher on his priorities than people think. It’s not for nothing that he appointed his omnipotent son-in-law Jared Kushner and his close adviser Jason Greenblatt to deal with the issue.
In less than two weeks, when Netanyahu comes to the White House, Trump will be waiting to hear how and what Netanyahu intends to do to help him make what he called “the ultimate deal” to end the “endless war” between Israel and the Palestinians.