Working Toward a New US-Israel Understanding on Settlements

The visit to Israel of President Trump’s special envoy Jason Greenblatt on the week of March 13 was followed by a series of reports describing the Israeli-American consultation process aimed at achieving an understanding on future constructions in the settlements. Some of these reports described a quite advanced stage of discussion, within the framework of which the contours of the understanding would enable construction within “blocs” while imposing a freeze on isolated settlement. Reactions from the Jewish Home party, objecting to any limits on settlement construction, were voiced loudly, as expected. Opposition to even such a partial freeze was also voiced from within Netanyahu’s own party. It is no surprise that these reactions were joined by attempts to demonize US officials involved in the talks with Netanyahu, more particularly a senior career State Department official, Yael Lempert, who dealt with Israel-related matters in the NSC under President Obama, and who the Trump Administration has so far chosen to keep in that same position.

As of this writing it appears that, despite the Greenblatt meetings with Israelis (including settler leaders) and Palestinians, the Trump Administration has so far not decided what will be its position vis-à-vis settlements. While the White House issued on March 23 an official Joint Readout about this consultation process – apparently to silence the continuous flow of speculation about the status of a new Israeli-American understanding – the statement does not say much, except, basically, that these discussions are still ongoing.

What are Netanyahu’s objectives & considerations?

The various reports and statements confirm the basic contours of Netanyahu’s strategy objectives in his talks with the Trump Administration:

  • Formalize the distinction between “settlement blocs” and settlements located outside of the “blocs.” Netanyahu appears to believe that the Trump Administration can be convinced to adopt and expand on what Netanyahu insists was the policy of the administration of George W. Bush.  Writing in a letter to Ariel Sharon, Bush was the first US president to distinguish between areas of the West Bank Israel would likely keep in an agreement and those it would not. Pro-settlement Israeli officials and their US allies have long argued that Bush also agreed that Israel had a green light for settlement construction in the former, even if that policy was never stated publicly (and even if that narrative was disputed by Bush Administration officials). Obama rejected this Israeli interpretation of US policy, continuing with the US policy – unbroken since 1967 – of objecting equally to all settlement construction, regardless of location.
  • Sell the most general/expansive view of blocs.Netanyahu appears to be making every effort to keep these discussions at a very general level, leaving the term “bloc” undefined and used in the broadest possible way, so as to enable construction in largest emptied areas as possible, without being committed to any strict terms.
  • Secure the “Jerusalem Exemption.” Netanyahu appears determined to see the US adopt an unprecedented new policy of “hands off” when it comes to settlement activity in East Jerusalem. Hence, his insistence that no matter what is agreed with respect to “limiting” West Bank settlement construction, Israel will not even discuss (let alone accept) limits on construction in East Jerusalem. Indeed, within the framework of his discussions with the US, Netanyahu has made clearthat East Jerusalem construction is non-negotiable and that he will personally continue to advance such construction.

In order to achieve these objectives, Netanyahu will likely maintain some semblance of support for the two-state solution – even if its interpretation is so restricted by conditions – from the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state to demands to retain overall security responsibility – as to make this commitment largely rhetorical. Maintaining a pretense of commitment to the two-state solution, and claiming a new US-Israel agreement is evidence of this commitment (even when it is evidence of the opposite), can work as a highly effective misdirection tactic: neutralizing criticism, allowing Netanyahu to reap benefits as a pay-off for his “restraint,” re-framing the entire Israeli-Palestinian debate to cast opponents of the new policy as marginal rejectionists or naïve idealists, and giving cover for the creation of facts in the ground that will do far more to render the two-state solution moot than any political declaration by Trump or Netanyahu.

What are the Trump Administration’s objectives and considerations?

In spite of the flow of Israeli leaks claiming that various conclusions have already been reached, there is little verifiable or conclusive information available regarding the substance of the talks or the US positions being articulated in them. That said, based on an analysis of the policies and statements of Trump officials thus far, the Trump Administration will most likely seek to define a formula that will reflect the following priorities:

  • Achieving Netanyahu buy-in. There are no indications that the Trump Administration has an appetite for clashing with Israel or expending significant political capital on issues like settlements (issues on which officials within the Administration are known to have deep sympathies and personal investment). In that context, it seems likely that Trump officials are seeking a US-Israel understanding the starting point of which will be what Netanyahu has decided he can live with, that is, his own self-imposed/self-defined political domestic constraints. Hence, the measures proposed by Trump officials will almost certainly strive to be acceptable to Netanyahu (based on these officials’ understanding of such constraints) and to enable Netanyahu to maintain his current coalition [NOTE: Such an approach is anything but new for the US; for most of the peace process era, US officials have given great weight to the imperative of not asking an Israeli Prime Minister to do things that could hurt him domestically – often to the point of out-Israel-ing the Israelis at the table.]
  • Preserving [at least in principle] the two-state solution.As of this writing, the fact, the degree, and the substance of the Trump administration commitment to the two-state solution is not clear. With little known on the substance of the discussions between the new administration and the Netanyahu government, judgment should for now be suspended in this regard. However, for a variety of reasons, it is likely that Trump officials will view it as beneficial to frame any new US-Israel understanding in terms of supporting and maintaining the viability of the two-state solution and leaving the door open to the renewal of the negotiation process. At the very least, such are the dictates of political expediency. Dropping the two-state solution would embroil the Trump Administration in pointless political battles both domestically and internationally, and close the door on benefits Netanyahu hopes to pocket (in terms of international push-back against both BDS and differentiation, broader legitimization of settlements, and regional normalization). And for reasons discussed above, Netanyahu himself will likely be pointing out the advantages accrued to paying lip-service to the two-state solution.
  • Mobilizing greater regional normalization. A US administration populated by officials who view business deals as a model for diplomacy and who view all relations in the world in transactional terms, is almost certain to adopt the position of Netanyahu seeking to de-couple Arab normalization with Israel from the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. As noted above, such normalization will require that any new US-Israel understandings take into account Arab sensitivities and concerns, including maintaining support for two states and acting very cautiously with respect to policies in Jerusalem.

What are the risks involved?

Last month, Terrestrial Jerusalem examined in detail the dangerous implications of a partial settlement freeze that would give a green light to construction in the “Greater Jerusalem” area. Specifically, we examined three questions:

  1. What would such a green light mean for the emergence of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem?
  2. What would it mean for land swaps as a mechanism to reach an agreement?
  3. What would it mean for Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem under an agreement?

As discussed in that analysis, unimpeded construction within the blocs, which have remained undefined by the Israeli government, would be fatal to the two-state solution. This is even more the case in Jerusalem, as such a policy would permit construction in areas that would critically undermine the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian State which it would cut in pieces while making impossible the delineation of a border. Specifically, such a policy would enable the advancement of the following sensitive settlement plans:

  • E1, east of Jerusalem, considered to be part of the Maale Adumim “bloc”
  • Givat Hamatos, south of Jerusalem, within Jerusalem’s municipal borders
  • E2, south of Bethlehem, within the Etzion bloc.

American and European diplomacy have played a critical role in deterring all past Israeli governments from implementing these plans. A green light from the Trump Administration for settlements expansion within the “blocs” would play the opposite role, legitimizing and likely expediting the implementation of these plans. For our detailed analysis of the implications of construction in each one of these areas, see here.

Finally, aside from the damage these plans would cause to the two-state solution, implementation of these plans would likely be fatal to any attempts to renew an Israeli-Palestinian peace process under a regional umbrella.  Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi leaders are likely to be deterred from involvement in such peace efforts, and from ongoing and greater normalization with Israel, by the embarrassment that such settlement construction announcement would cause them, even if the announcement of a new US-Israel agreement did not initially seem to be problematic. Likewise, Israeli actions in Jerusalem – including settlement activity in and around the Old City and in the shadow of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif (or, worse yet, Israeli actions regarding the Mount) would be similarly harmful.