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Israeli-Palestinian Peace: What's in It for Trump?

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U.S. President Donald Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017.Credit: Carlos Barria, Reuters

As with his conduct in Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump’s intentions regarding peace in the Israeli-Palestinian arena should be taken with a grain of salt. By all accounts, his Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt, is a serious, intelligent and likable person, with a strong sense of mission and determination to achieve the ultimate deal for regional peace. But Trump isn’t really the hope of the Israeli left, just as his presidency was not the wet dream of the Israeli right, as several of the heads of that camp had thought immediately after his victory in the election.

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Trump is busy first and foremost looking out for his top priority – himself. It seems that the president is advancing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for two reasons. One – a resounding success in that realm would help erase the poor impression created by his maneuvers in the domestic political arena in Washington. The second – an important part of his aspirations for improving the U.S economy are based on fostering closer relations (by way of weapons and other business deals) with Saudi Arabia, which seeks a revival of the Arab Peace Initiative, which it first introduced back in 2002.

One can understand why the man who attained part of his fame by organizing beauty contests is interested in convening an international peace summit in Washington. It would constitute a huge demonstration of power – and no less important, something his predecessor Obama was unable to pull off. Forcing a peace agreement on the two sides is a possibility, but that would happen at a much later stage. At the same time, Trump could retreat, if it turns out that there is no chance that the diplomatic contacts are going to end with an agreement.

Netanyahu, who is sometimes called the Republican senator from Rehavia, was one of the first to identify the real intentions of the U.S. administration in this regard. That has been the basis for the restraint in his public declarations, even as Education Minister Naftali Bennett and other right-wing ministers have been dreaming about discarding the two-state vision and annexing Ma’aleh Adumim to sovereign Israel. The prime minister also understood something else about Trump: the U.S. president’s tremendous sensitivity concerning the respect that’s shown him. That was the reason for the quick agreement regarding curbing the building in the settlements.

But a perusal of the briefings the Prime Minister’s Office gave to the press after the cabinet decision to that effect reveals that for now the settlers are likely to be able to live with the deal that was struck. The parameters for defining the areas where construction will cease are very flexible. Experience from the period of the building freeze during Obama’s early days in office indicates that on the ground, quite a few ways can be found to bypass Washington’s decrees.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the right would do well to sober up from the illusion of the quick transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. What was thought to be a done deal around the time of the president’s inauguration is moving very slowly for now. The Israeli right got a new U.S. ambassador, David Friedman, who identifies completely with the settlement enterprise. That may have to suffice.

Media coverage of Netanyahu’s conduct is presently, and perhaps naturally, focused on the criminal investigations against him, on his political instability and on what the press reports as ongoing turmoil at home. But those developments are not totally divorced from the events on the strategic level, chief among them relations with the Trump administration.

If Netanyahu does resort to calling for early elections in the end, it won’t only be over the matter of the broadcasting corporation law or his relations with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. In the background will also be the pressures being applied to Israel by the U.S. president and the need to maneuver between Washington’s expectations and heightened Russian involvement in the region.

Worrying signs

The signs posted at various intersections in the country during the past two weeks, as part of a new campaign by an ultra-Orthodox nationalist organization to save the IDF from the horrors of joint service for men and women, reflect the rising extremism by some rabbis vis-à-vis the army. The initiators of the national campaign aim to end the induction of female combatants into the army. They have warned of the women’s damaging effects on the professionalism and operational ability of the combat units, of the possible health consequences they themselves may suffer during their service and of a potential increase in sexual harassment. The IDF General Staff has been concerned about the escalating harshness in tone, but for some reason has yet to complete an examination of the claims that, among those distributing posters were students of hesder yeshivas (which combine army service with religious studies), whose service has been postponed and shortened – with army approval.

The proportion of religious male soldiers serving in the mixed battalions, alongside women, is low. In the front-line units – the infantry and Armored Corps – where there are many skullcap-wearers among the fighters and commanders, there has been no significant change in the status quo, and women do not serve in combat roles. The number of co-ed battalions, which are involved primarily in patrolling borders and gathering intelligence, has in fact increased in recent years, but that’s nothing new. The first such battalion, Caracal, dates to 2004.

At present, these battalions have been fulfilling their relatively limited military assignments with honor. To date they have not experienced any traumatic operational incidents, like those that in the past trained a spotlight on units in crisis, such as the disaster of the Shayetet naval commandos in 1997 or the friendly-fire incident in Duvdevan in 2000.

So what has infuriated these Haredi rabbis? It’s probably not what they’re lamenting about publicly, but rather more of a combination of other reasons, one of which can be found within their camp itself: the tremendous increase in the army’s recruitment of religious females (who are not legally required to serve). In 2016, 2,159 of these girls enlisted, an increase of about 500 percent within five years. The IDF estimates that the unbridled attacks against women’s service by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein of the Bnei David pre-military academy in Eli, will only spur other young religious women to join.

The great concern about “ruining” religious Zionist girls has been combined with the fear that the army has “surrendered” to trends that the rabbis identify as radical-leftist: adopting the egalitarian discourse led by feminist activists and the LGBT community. They’re afraid that the army is lowering its standards and eliminating barriers in order to make things easier for women, while toadying to liberals in order to be praised for being politically correct. For example, there was an outcry because on so-called Family Day, the air force website featured a picture of a same-sex (male) couple, one of whom serves as a career officer in the IAF.

This is the time and place for the rabbis to hit the brakes and thus ensure their continued influence, while also noting the contribution their students make in IDF combat units. Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot hasn’t give in to them. It’s true that a group of national-religious rabbis and yeshiva head sat with him for a long nighttime meeting, eating kugel and herring, while approving several small changes intended to reduce friction between the sexes at Officers’ Training School, but the army has not changed its policy significantly.

Eisenkot needs co-ed battalions because they serve his main goal: relieving the burden of the front-line units and enabling them to devote more time to training exercises for war. Nor have the rabbis thus far prevented a single young religious woman from enlisting and or influenced any young religious man to postpone his IDF service. MK Bezalel Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi, who proposed doing that, was immediately censured unanimously within the religious Zionist camp.

This battle is expected to continue, so long as the IDF is the preferred playing field for all the sides. On Wednesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman sought to take certain steps against the pre-military academy in Eli, in response to Levinstein’s statements. After intervention by the Justice Ministry, Lieberman discovered that he couldn’t punish the institution by revoking the postponement of its students’ military service. But he can still embitter the lives of its heads by imposing restrictions on the hesder yeshiva that operates alongside it.

The IDF, for its part, has refrained for now from pointing out what is a major weakness in the rabbis’ arguments. The need for women to serve as combat soldiers in the mixed battalions arose due to a shortage of combat manpower. It’s strange that the rabbis, who complain of violation of the status quo and warn of professional damage to the IDF, refuse to prolong the service segment of hesder students even by a short period – which could close some of the gaps that are worrying the army. A woman combat soldier in Caracal today serves for three years (soon to be commuted to 32 months), just like men who are not in any special track. The soldiers in the hesder track serve for only 17 months (out of a total of 42) – and most of their rabbis do everything possible so they won’t have to serve for even one additional month.

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