Trump's Warning to Israel: Bragging About Settlements Embarrasses Me

Massive new building projects in the West Bank upset moderate Arab states that Trump needs to rebuff claims that he's anti-Muslim.

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A worker stands in a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, West Bank, January 22, 2017.
A worker stands in a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, West Bank, January 22, 2017.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The best thing about the new White House statement on Israeli settlements in the West Bank is the Schadenfreude. One can easily conjure the astonished faces of settler leaders and right-wing politicians when they were first told that U.S. President Donald Trump had published a statement that was not a ringing endorsement of whatever Israel’s heart desires. You can imagine them mumbling “Settlements? Trump? Donald Trump? The president? You sure? Maybe it’s a typo?”

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In fact, the main importance of the statement is that it was put out at all. Israelis had assumed that Trump would swallow just about anything their government would do, if only to be different from Barack Obama. The White House statement was a shot across the bow to Netanyahu that there’s a limit to everything. Israeli announcements in recent days that 6,000 new apartment units will be built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and that the government will consider establishing a new settlement from scratch as compensation for the evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona, came perilously close to that red line. So the White House put Israel on notice that it shouldn’t go too far, especially as the first meeting between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only a few days away.

The statement does not break new ground. In fact, were it not for the fact that the White House caught the world by surprise simply by issuing it, the statement could be construed as a tremendous victory for the Israeli right. Existing settlements, the statement says, are not an impediment to peace, which is light years away from previous American administrations that dubbed them either “illegitimate” or “illegal.” The statement doesn’t even differentiate been settlements inside the blocs and those outside them. It also says that expanding new settlements, which was always problematic, or setting up new ones, which has been verboten for two decades, “may not be helpful” in achieving that goal. Which is like saying that stepping on the gas pedal as you approach a yellow light may not be not the safest way to get home.

Nonetheless, the warning was necessary because Israel had started to behave like the kid who brings his rough older brother to a fight with his classmates. The brazen statements about massive new building starts in the territories may have pleased the settler lobby, but they were being viewed with growing alarm around the world. With Trump behind it, Israel seemed to be running wild. 

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on cyber security in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Jan. 31, 2017.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

It’s reasonable to assume that the American reaction may have had something to do with Trump’s meeting on Thursday with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Press reports indicate that Abdullah raised the issue of the possible move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but the settlements would also be uppermost on his mind. You can’t expect your friends in the Arab world to support you, Abdullah must have told Trump, if the U.S. is perceived as giving Israel a blank check against the Palestinians. Contrary to what you may think of Arab kings and despots, Abdullah would have hinted, we’re also politicians, and we also have a public that we need to contend with.

The same would be true of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the group of countries who were uneasy with Obama, happy with Trump’s win, look forward to tougher policies toward Iran and ease steadily closer to Israel. They would all be growing increasingly uncomfortable with what seemed to be a complete loss of control over Israeli settlement expansion. It’s one thing if Israel keeps on building clandestinely without anyone paying much attention, but it’s quite another if Jerusalem starts brazenly bragging about it.

One should remember, of course, that this so-called “moderate” coalition is extremely important for Trump, and not only because of his business interests or the fact that the U.S. needs a logistical hinterland in the Middle East if it intends to confront Iran. For Trump, these countries are his defense witnesses. They are vital for his campaign to refute accusations that he is anti-Muslim or that his new immigration restrictions are based on religious discrimination. Some of the Gulf countries have gone so far as to publicly endorse Trump’s steps, which could be risky for them. But such backing does not come free, or even cheap.

The most interesting thing about the statement is that it maintains the surprising consistency of Trump’s commitment to achieving peace. Although the tone and tenor and content of his statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have undergone dramatic changes from his appearance before the Republican Jewish Coalition in December, 2015, in which he refused to even endorse a united Jerusalem, to his blanket endorsement of Israel’s settlements in an interview to the Daily Mail in May, 2016, Trump has never failed to mention his desire to broker what he called “the biggest deal of them all.” Israeli right-wingers, who were dancing in the streets when Trump was elected, conveniently ignored the warning signs, or viewed them as just empty chatter.

The statement ups the ante for the February 15 Trump-Netanyahu summit. It will fuel speculations about possible disagreements on settlements, on the one hand, and of a grand plan that Trump may have in mind concerning Middle East peace. It will also give beleaguered Israeli leftists and Jewish liberals a brief moment of respite and naches, but let’s not get carried away. This is Trump we’re talking about, and he can reverse course once again tomorrow morning. As liberals lambast conservatives and right-wingers for looking the other way at Trump’s transgressions because of their hostility to the other political side, Israeli leftists should also take care not to let their Schadenfreude cloud their view of Trump’s general behavior. Sticking it to Netanyahu and settlers may be a joyous occasion but it is fleeting: real life is the terrible predicament we’re all in because Trump is president.