Settlements and 'The Ultimate Deal': Trump's Surprising Statement on Israel in Context

What's new – and what isn't – in Trump's statement on Israel's settlement building.

U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 2, 2017.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

WASHINGTON – The White House statement Thursday that deemed Israeli settlement construction unhelpful to peace came as a surprise and  disappointment to some on the Israeli right, who had hoped Donald Trump's rise to power would signal the end of the two-state solution and a new era of unconditional White House support for Israeli settlement expansion.

The statement made clear that Trump, who has called a peace agreement "the ultimate deal," shares previous administrations' desire to get Israel and the Palestinians to sign a peace agreement and expects the Israeli government to shun steps that could hurt the prospects of such a deal.

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FULL: John Kerry delivers speech on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The statement, however, also contained good news for the Israeli right wing since it declared that the Trump administration did not believe that the settlements themselves were an impediment to peace.

Every U.S. administration in the last 50 years has objected to Israel's settlement expansion, fearing it might hurt the chances of reaching a final-status peace agreement. The Trump White House, it seems, is only demanding that Israel not expand its existing settlements, but it isn't addressing the issue with the same clear rhetoric that previous administrations used.

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The Obama administration insisted throughout its eight years in power that settlements were a major obstacle to peace. Obama pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 to stop all settlement construction in the West Bank for 10 months, and according to Israeli officials, the president's people at the time warned Israel that their approach to settlement building was "not one brick."

The previous administration's last two acts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were abstaining from a UN Security Council vote denouncing the settlements and placing the lion's share of the blame for peace talks' failure on Israeli settlement construction. This position was clearly expressed in then-Secretary of State John Kerry's speech in late December.

U.S. President Bill Clinton walks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (L) and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (R) on the grounds of Camp David during peace talks, July 11.
Win McNamee, Reuters

Trump's approach seems to be closer to that of the George W. Bush administration, which in 2004 sent a letter to Israel, then under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, proclaiming that "new realities on the ground" would be taken into account in any future peace agreement, and that it was "unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949."

Some in Jerusalem and Washington interpreted this statement as an authorization from the administration to build in the "settlement blocs" – the large concentrations of settlements relatively close to the 1967 borders that might become part of Israel proper in a peace agreement.

But the Bush administration didn't always speak in one voice regarding the letters' interpretation. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in 2007, after Israel announced new construction in the settlements, that "the United States doesn't make a distinction" between different kinds of settlements.

Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said "the president obviously still stands by that letter of April of 2004, but you need to look at it, obviously, in the context of which it was issued." That context, he explained, was Israel's acceptance of Bush's so-called road map for peace that included the foundation of a Palestinian state and Sharon's decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

Perhaps the Trump administration in time will adopt a policy close to that of Bush's, which at times was less severe than Obama's regarding settlement building. But it also made clear that settlements were indeed one of the obstacles to reaching an agreement.

Another option would be for the Trump administration to turn a blind eye to some Israeli settlement building while pushing for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. That was the policy, even if not officially stated, during parts of the Clinton administration.

The two recent Israeli prime ministers who built the most settlement units were Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, both from the Labor Party. They built in the settlements while conducting peace talks with the Palestinians under American mediation.

The administration of George H.W. Bush, for its part, took a tough line against settlement building, with then-Secretary of State James Baker highlighting settlements as the greatest obstacle to reaching an agreement. "I don’t think there is any bigger obstacle to peace than the settlement activity that continues not only unabated but at an enhanced pace,” Baker said in 1991.

He added that "nothing has made my job of trying to find Arab and Palestinian partners for Israel more difficult than being greeted by a new settlement every time I arrive.” Baker, it should be noted, met with Trump in May 2016 to discuss the candidate's foreign policy positions.

One member of Trump's cabinet who seems to share Baker's negative view of settlements is Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said in 2013 that settlement building was putting Israel at risk of becoming an apartheid state. Mattis, a former Marine Corps general, added that as commander of the U.S. Central Command, he "paid a military security price every day because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel."

In addition to the conclusion that settlement expansion could hurt peace, another aspect of Thursday's statement that seems to suggest continuity with previous administrations was its reference to 1967 as a starting point for talks. It stated that "the American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years." This June marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, which began Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Dr. Michael Koplow, policy director at the Israel Policy Forum, told Haaretz that the White House’s position was "encouraging" and "reveals just how far out on a limb Netanyahu has gone on his own. As with presidents Clinton and Obama, the Trump administration’s early position on settlements now gives Netanyahu some domestic cover from political pressure on his right to do what he has wanted to do all along, which is to maintain the status quo rather than move toward more settlements and eventually annexation."

Dan Shapiro, a U.S. ambassador to Israel under Obama, tweeted that the White House statement "tells us that Trump's opposition to settlement activity, as a negative factor in Middle East peacemaking, is in continuity with U.S. policy for many years." He said he believed that the White House might have published the statement because Netanyahu "wanted pressure from Trump to help him restrain parties to his right."