The euphoria that gripped the settler movement as the results of the U.S. presidential election became known early November 9 is wearing off. The Trump administration was supposed to be the one that would let Israel draw its own boundaries and applaud enthusiastically while settlements were expanded and annexed to Israel.
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Initial announcements only stoked the settlers’ enthusiasm, such as the appointment of the new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman Donald Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer who helped finance the construction of homes at Beit El and called left-wing advocacy group J Street “Kapos.” Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett rushed quickly to Trump Tower, where he heard further confirmation that Israel had “a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything.”
Leaders of settler councils flocked to Washington for the inauguration on January 20. This was to be the settlers’ great moment when the international opposition to their endeavor would finally collapse. At intersections across the West Bank, signs were put up declaring “Now build!”
Two months later, you don’t hear much of that exuberance anymore. Some right-wingers are still clinging to shreds of hope. Three weeks ago Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, one of the most pro-settlement ideologues in Likud, said “the American administration is open to new political thinking and all options are still on the table,” but by then most senior ministers were speaking of the administration’s insistence that Israel “rein back” any new settlement building.
In his meetings two weeks ago in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations made it clear that Israel is not about to receive carte blanche for settlement building, and that the new administration is set on including the Palestinian Authority in the picture. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was duly invited to meet Trump in Washington next week.
This isn’t the way it was supposed to happen. Friedman hasn’t even arrived yet and the policy looks alarmingly like that of the previous administrations. The tone is much warmer, there are no condemnations of Israel’s settlement activities, and Washington’s new UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, has made it her personal mission to combat the organization’s historical bias against Israel, but this isn’t enough.
The settler leaders are still not speaking out openly. They don’t want to confront a new administration that contains many unabashed supporters of their movement. They still want to hope these are just the first few months of adjustment before a new radical foreign policy is formulated.
But in off-the-record conversations with a number of veteran and influential settler leaders, including former chiefs of the Yesha Council, founders of the Gush Emunim movement that built the first settlements, and senior politicians who represent settler interests in the Knesset and cabinet, there is growing concern that “Donald Trump could be more dangerous than Barack Obama.”
“Obama was ideologically opposed to us. But he was also a rational politician who realized that it was impossible to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, so he gave up trying," one settler leader said.
"Trump on the other hand has no ideology and no rationality. He has nothing against the settlements for now, but if he decides he wants to be the man to make the deal no one else has succeeded in achieving, he won’t be rational about it."
Against Obama, the settlers had a wide range of allies in the United States. But now many of the Republicans and evangelical Christians who are among their greatest supporters are also in the Trump camp. If Trump does launch his own diplomatic initiative, it will be much more difficult for them to accuse him of throwing Israel under the bus.
But the biggest ally the settlers had against Obama was Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu could say no to Obama,” one settler leader said. “He had the entire Republican establishment backing him up against Obama. But he won’t have their back against Trump. Netanyahu won’t say no to Trump.”
Their deeper fear is that when it comes to settlement building, Netanyahu doesn’t really want to say no.
There is little love lost between the ideological settlers and the prime minister about whom Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, a hard-line leader of the religious settlements, once wrote: “With Netanyahu we have to constantly be on our guard.”
As another settler leader who frequently speaks with Netanyahu put it, “I think Netanyahu actually wanted Hillary Clinton to win. He preferred having a Democratic administration that would help him keep the status quo than an unpredictable Republican like Trump.”
The hard-liners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition are already blaming him for sending the new administration discreet messages that he's fine with their “reining in” the settlements. Netanyahu opposes any major pullbacks from the West Bank and distrusts the Palestinians, but he has never been an instinctive supporter of the settlers either. “Netanyahu outfoxed us with Trump,” complained one Knesset member from Habayit Hayehudi.
Among the few Israelis who believe Netanyahu is serious when he says he still supports the two-state solution are settler leaders who have dealt with him for years and fear that if his security demands are met, he'd be willing to pull back from large parts of the West Bank.
Obama couldn't persuade either Netanyahu or Abbas to sit down together and bridge their differences. It seems almost inconceivable that Trump could succeed where Obama failed, but the settlers fear Trump much more. They’re actually beginning to miss Obama.