Trump and the settlements: No cause for optimism or pessimism

Guest Column

Y&S Nazarian Center Postdoctoral Fellow Shaiel Ben-Ephraim assesses Israel's settlement policies and prospects for the peace process under the Trump administration.

UCLA Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, January 31, 2018 - Every utterance of U.S. presidents towards Israeli settlements in the West Bank is parsed and analyzed with care usually evinced by Talmudic scholars. Analysis of these statements is tied to a particularly beloved hobby of Middle East watchers: debating which Presidents are “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel.” With the arrival of the Trump administration, exegesis is now applied to Tweets as well and the policy of the Trump administration on settlements is being watched more closely than ever right now.

The current Israeli government has taken several steps to further render permanency to the settlements since Trump’s arrival in office. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit circulated guidelines, stating that government-sponsored bills must address possible application in the West Bank.1 In addition, the governing Likud Party passed a resolution calling for the full application of Israeli law in the settlements. Many analysts note the permissive policy of President Donald Trump as a factor in these decisions.2 Just a few days after the announcements, the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman announced his intention to pay a condolence call to a Member of Knesset at the Otniel settlement.3 The visit has been interpreted by some as a signal of support for Israeli attempts to incorporate the settlements fully. How important are these signals from the United States and how important is its position in influencing Israeli settlement policy?

When Donald Trump was elected, settlers rejoiced at the prospect of a President sympathetic to their cause sitting in the White House. Education Minister Naftali Bennett remarked that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.”4 In other words, Israel would now enjoy the freedom to construct settlements throughout the West Bank in order to guarantee that no Palestinian state could ever be created. Those critical of Israeli settlement policy bemoaned the development. And the appointment of David Friedman, a pro-settlement bankruptcy lawyer, as ambassador to Israel was seen by many left-leaning commentators as disconcerting.

More of the Same

However, while the current American administration seems to have made significant changes in its policy towards Jerusalem, a similar transformation has yet to occur in regards to the settlements. As it did in the past, the U.S. continues to make some attempts to restrain Israeli construction. For example, when the Israeli cabinet was slated to vote on a bill which would “incorporate” settlements in the vicinity of Jerusalem into its metropolitan municipality, the Trump administration reacted. There is a good chance the Trump administration was involved. Likud lawmaker David Bitan told an Israeli radio station that “There is American pressure that claims this is about annexation and that this could interfere with the peace process.”5 While the bill may still pass, it is clear that the Trump administration is playing the conventional American role in this drama.

The continuation of the status quo is unlikely to limit or reverse Israeli settlement construction. Despite historical nominal American opposition to Israeli settlement construction, there has been a substantial growth and expansions of Israeli settlements. According to the latest figures, there are 380,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank (not including Israeli citizens in East Jerusalem) and 588,000 if East Jerusalem is included.6 There is only one example of a successful attempt by the United States to mediate an evacuation of the settlements, in Sinai following the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement of 1979. The other case of Israeli evacuation, from Gaza in 2005 was unilateral (although the U.S. was involved indirectly). The overall lack of success historically would indicate that the United States has limited control over Israeli settlement construction.

Obstacles to an Agreement

The lack of American lack of influence, which may be linked, in part, to the fact that settlements do not exist in a vacuum, can only be addressed as part of a successful peace process. Israel was burned in its attempts to unilaterally withdraw from territories it occupies. Both the withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza resulted in terrorist organizations setting up permanent camp in the areas relinquished. There are no indications that the Netanyahu government will consider evacuating settlements or restraining its policy of applying Israeli law in the settlements unless it receives what it considers to be fair compensation. This would come in the form of peace, recognition and security from both the Palestinians and the Arab world.

A climate conducive to a full peace agreement is unlikely to emerge in the current Middle Eastern climate. There are too many regional structural blockages to a genuine peace agreement at this time. One of the major problems the peace process has faced historically is that a great deal of Palestinian and Arab opinion is opposed to peace with Israel along lines that the Jewish state is likely to accept. Egypt managed to oppose a tidal wave of opposition and sign a peace agreement in 1979 because it was the most powerful and influential country in the Arab world. Despite its strong position President Anwar Sadat found it difficult to contain the repercussions of attaining peace with Egypt. Sadat’s assassination is regarded by many to be linked to his decision to reach a separate peace agreement with Israel.

If Egypt faced difficulties, weaker Arab states and non-state actors have found it almost impossible to reach a deal with Israel. Jordan, which shared many interests with Israel, had to wait until the Palestinians signed the Oslo Agreement in 1993 before it could sign a peace agreement the following year due to fear of the consequences of moving in isolation. Lebanon has never had an interest in war with Israel. Yet its weakness has precluded the attainment of a deal. Indeed, the only Lebanese President who openly supported a peace agreement, Bachir Gemayel, was assassinated.

Sadly, the Palestinians are in this category of weak actors. They are deeply divided and incapable of reaching a peace agreement. Since June 2007, Gaza has been government by Hamas and the West Bank by Fatah. Israel has stated that substantive negotiations are hindered by this development. Just as importantly, neither Israel nor the United States are confident in the ability of Fatah (their preferred negotiations partner) to reach a deal and fulfill it as they lack full authority and legitimacy.7 It is difficult to imagine how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved until this problem is successfully addressed.

Moreover, the “good news” that Hamas and Fatah have recently reached an agreement on unity and reconciliation is unlikely to aid the resumption of serious talks. Previous reconciliation attempts have failed and the initial indications are that the current attempts are not promising. More to the point, it is hard to imagine Hamas agreeing to a negotiation position which Israel could possibly accept. After all, their movement covenant calls for replacing Israel with an Islamic State and states that "renouncing any part of Palestine means renouncing part of the religion."8

Israel’s Stance

Even if the Palestinians are united and willing to negotiate, it is questionable if Israel would agree to evacuate settlements to advance the peace process. The Israeli government and a significant fraction of the public are still of the opinion that settlements serve a vital security purpose. The historical precedents of previous Israeli withdrawals from settled territories and the aftermath have only increased the fear of the repercussions. The Israeli government must be convinced that removal of settlements is in its immediate interest and to articulate a clear rationale for doing so which is palpable to its domestic constituency. It must also be reassured that the withdrawal will not result in more terrorism and violence.

As of now the Israeli government does not seem to consider the evacuation of settlements as an immediate necessity. Through a successful anti-terrorism strategy (involving the wall built in the West Bank, checkpoints, the Iron Dome missile program, targeted killings and other measures) Israel has significantly lowered the ability of terror organizations to harm it physically. Additionally, its economic success in the last few years and its increasingly warm (though unofficial) ties with Arab states render Israel comfortable with the status quo. Given these developments and numerous further problems for which both sides are responsible, the Palestinians have been both unwilling and unable to convince the Israeli public or its leadership that they are willing to make painful concessions in the pursuit of peace and the refrain that there “is no partner” for peace has become an axiom in Israeli public life. From the perspective of both sidess, there is not partner as of now.

Sticks, Then Carrots

The entire structure of incentives around the conflict would have to change before a realistic chance of Israel making significant concessions with regards to settlements would re-emerge. To be more amenable to compromise, Israel must feel that the status quo undermines its strategic interests and that a future solution would be in its best interests. The Palestinians with the support of the Arab world must figure out how to first shock Israel out of the status quo (using diplomatic rather than military means) and then reassure it into making concessions.

It’s been done before. In the 1973 War, Egypt planned a limited military campaign designed not to destroy Israel but rather to salvage its national pride and force Israel to the negotiation table on better terms.9 In 1979 Israel agreed to withdraw from Sinai because Egypt had shown in no uncertain terms that it could extract a serious price from Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Just as importantly, Sadat put a great deal of effort into creating the right mindset in Jerusalem. First by hurting Israel in the 1973 War and then reassuring Israel with the visit to Jerusalem and a genuine willingness to make concessions. Sadat’s diplomatic and military strategy altered Israeli interests and perceptions of its security enough to generate significant support for territorial concessions and the evacuation of settlements.

The eruption of violence can lead both sides to the negotiation table as it did with the Oslo Process in the 1990’s. However, the insecurity engendered through violence can be detrimental to reaching a deal. Palestinian leaders must take a page out of Sadat’s book and reassure Israel that settled territory evacuated would not be used for terrorism.

A Regional and Strategic Issue

In order to promote an agreement, the regional configuration would also have to change. In 1973, the Saudi willingness to put its oil policy behind Egypt underscored the strategic need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and convinced the U.S. to pressure Israel into making concessions.10 A similar sense of unity of purpose in the Arab world would be necessary today.

If the United States was made to feel that its standing in the Middle East was undermined by the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be more proactive. There are some signs, however, that the Arab world is losing interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that could weaken the incentives for the US to put pressure on both sides.11 This is a welcome development for Israel but dangerous to the peace process. The full attention and support of the Arab world is needed to redress the strategic and political imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians in favor of the latter.

In conclusion, Israeli settlement policy cannot be viewed in isolation from the wider peace process. In addition, the success of that process depends on the regional interests of the actors. Legalistic and moral arguments will have no influence on Israel. No amount of pointedly worded statements from the President that settlement construction is “unhelpful” will make Israel budge. Conversely, American statements on the eternal historical rights of Israel to Jerusalem (like the one Trump recently provided) will not stop Israel from making concessions if in its view withdrawals better served its security needs.

Ultimately, the strategic context, and not emotional or legal constraints, will determine whether the settlements continue to expand or are curtailed. In addition, for any move toward peace to work the interests and political circumstances of all relevant actors need to be considered. Settlements are not an Israeli issue and a bilateral resolution of the issue may be unattainable. The resolution of this problem and the conflict in general are a regional problem and must be treated as such. The policy of the President is just one factor among many and one may argue not even remotely the most critical one. Attention would be better spent on the strategic conditions of the region rather than the errant statements and Tweets.

Shaiel Ben-Ephraim recently completed his PhD in Military and Strategic Studies at the Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Nazarian Center for the 2017-2018 academic year. His research interests include U.S.-Israeli relations and the foreign policy of both states, Israeli settlement policy and strategic studies.

1 Revital Hovel, “New Laws Should Also Consider Settlers in West Bank, Says Israeli Attorney General,” Ha’aretz, December 31, 2017 https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.832284 https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.832284
2 David Halbfinger, “Emboldened Israeli Right Presses Moves to Doom 2-State Solution,” The New York Times, January 1, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/world/middleeast/israeli-jerusalem-west-bank.html
3 Jacob Magid, “US ambassador pays condolence visit at MK’s West Bank home,” Times of Israel, January 2, 2018 https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-ambassador-pays-condolence-visit-at-mks-west-bank-home/
4 Jack Moore, “Israeli Minister Naftali Benett: Donald Trump Victory Is End of Future Palestinian State,” Newsweek, November 9, 2016 http://www.newsweek.com/israeli-minister-naftali-bennett-trump-victory-end-palestinian-state-518866 {accessed: November 5 2017}.
5 Jeffrey Heller, “U.S. pressure delays Israel's 'Greater Jerusalem' bill: legislator,” Reuters, October 29, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians-settlement/u-s-pressure-delays-israels-greater-jerusalem-bill-legislator-idUSKBN1CY0CB {accessed: November 5 2017}.
6 Yotam Berger, “Settler Census,” June 11, 2017, Ha’aretz, http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/50years/.premium-1.4159019 {accessed: June 14, 2017}; Betzelem, “Statistics on Settlements and Settler Population,” Betzelem, May 11, 2017 {accessed: June 14, 2017}.
7 Khaled Elgindy, “Lost in the Chaos: The Palestinian Leadership Crisis,” Washington Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 4 (2015), 133-150.
8 The Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, August 18, 1988 http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp {accessed: November 5, 2017}
9 David Tal, “Who needed the October 1973 War?,” Middle Eastern Studies , Volume 52, No. 5 (2016), 737-753.
10 Briefing Paper for President Nixon, October 31, 1973, FRUS, 1969–1976, Volume XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, eds. Nina Howland, Craig Daigle, Edward C. Keefer, Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2011), doc. 302.
11 See for example John Bell, “Israel-Palestine: Is it even relevant anymore?,” Aljazeera, March 2 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/03/israel-palestine-relevant-anymore-150302072026022.html {accessed: June 18, 2017}; UN Press Release, “Despite Other Middle East Crises, Intensifying Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Must Not Be Ignored,” United Nations, October 19 2016, https://www.un.org/press/en/2016/sc12558.doc.htm {accessed: June 18, 2017}