As in so many other fields of endeavor, it is quite clear that the election of Donald Trump is a game changer. However, as yet we have no idea into what the game is morphing. What will be American foreign policy vis-à-vis Jerusalem on and after January 21, 2017? It would be grossly irresponsible to conjecture. That said, a number of observations are in order.
The interregnum (between today and the January 20 inauguration): It appears likely that Netanyahu will be on his “best behavior” – particularly regarding settlement expansion – until the inauguration, as thus far exhibited in word and in deed. While members of his Cabinet have been chafing at the bit and calling to open the settlement floodgates, Netanyahu has left no room for doubt: he very much fears a US-led or US-supported UN Security Council Resolution and will endeavor to allow nothing that can be interpreted as a provocation and provide President Obama an additional incentive to lead or acquiesce to such an initiative.
Should there be such a move at the Security Council, or a similar initiative (like a Presidential address on Israel-Palestine), however, it is likely that Netanyahu will take retaliatory measures in the form of new settlement announcements. The most prominent candidates for such “punitive” measures are the doomsday settlements of E-1 and Givat Hamatos.
Post-inauguration: It is highly likely that a new world order will begin to take shape with the Trump administration, the dynamics of which are impossible to anticipate. That said, in the limited area of crisis management, it appears that the braking mechanisms that were generated by the daily engagement of all US administrations since 1967 will all but disappear.
The most conspicuous example where the absence of this breaking mechanism is a serious issue is the highly problematic settlement scheme of E-1. Were it not for the resolute engagement of the three US Presidents that have been in the White House since the plan was conceived – Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama – the settlement of E-1 would already exist.
However, while E-1 may be the most conspicuous example, it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is possible that the US Government itself does not grasp how many problematic developments have been prevented out of apprehension regarding the US response. There have even been occasions where senior Israeli officials who publicly promoted specific problematic plans quietly leaked the details to ensure that the US would engage and prevent the plans from moving forward.
As of January 21, that braking mechanism will likely be gone – and there is every reason to suspect that Netanyahu does not view such a development as entirely positive. With the US disengaged, Netanyahu will no longer be able to counterbalance the pressure coming from the extreme elements in his coalition – from Naftali Bennett to his own Likud supporters – by saying “my hands are tied.” As of January 21, the pressure on Netanyahu to open the settlement floodgates will be of unprecedented intensity.
It is imperative to prepare for such an eventuality immediately. The luxury of saying, “let’s wait and see” does not exist. In order to keep alive the very possibility of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, alternate moderating mechanisms must be identified and put in place.
The Role of Europe: There is already one such mechanism that has in the past been used to good effect: resolute action by the EU or EU member states acting in concert, regarding possible Israeli actions. Such European action has in recent years proven to effective. For example, the fact that the tenders for the construction of 1500 units at Givat Hamatos have not yet been published is in no small part attributable to a consistent and coherent message sent by EU member states (including joint demarches by “the Quint” – London, Paris, Berlin. Rome and Madrid) that there would be negative consequences should the tenders be published.
The current leaders in Europe have an unenviable task before it. Domestic challenges (immigration and the economy) and international challenges (the crises in Crimea, Syria and beyond) will make demands on their time and energy under circumstances fraught with uncertainty. And some, such as France and Germany, will be dealing with these issues against the backdrop of their own elections. But however dire these other issues may be, they do not render an Israel-Palestine conflict careening out of control any less dangerous to regional and global stability.