October 22, 2018

Israel restrains settlements because it doesn’t trust Trump

Maybe it is all a brilliant political maneuver. Maybe Prime Minister Netanyahu planned ahead and manufactured the public storm over the future of Israel’s public broadcasting corporation – a storm that threatened to topple his coalition and that Israelis still can’t stop debating. Maybe it is all a smoke screen aimed at saving the real decisions from being the center of attention. Such as the decision to have a de-facto freeze on settlement construction behind the current lines of existing settlements.

This is not a small thing. Just two-three months ago, Israeli settlers and their supporters believed that the Trump era will be their era of unconstrained development. They now must adjust to a new reality. Trump is not as enthusiastic about their project as they assumed he’d be – and is a lot more enthusiastic about advancing an Israeli-Palestinian deal than they assumed he’d be.

Netanyahu, thus far, has been able to wisely deliver the devastating news without much opposition. This is partly due to the media’s attention deficit disorder – we are too busy trying to understand his motivation concerning the broadcasting corporation to have time for settlements. It’s also partly due to the realization, even understood by the hardcore rightwing, that picking a fight with Donald Trump might not be the best of ideas and to how Netanyahu sweetened the bitter pill with a promise to build one new settlement for the evacuated settlers of Amona.

Not that the rightwing is satisfied with these last moves. The narrative its leaders are now advancing – and we are likely to hear a lot more of that when elections will be on the horizon – is that Netanyahu missed an opportunity. It goes like this: had Netanyahu been decisive and forgone the two-state-solution mantra when Trump was elected, the administration would have gone along with it and accepted the new reality. But since Netanyahu was cautious and kept his posture of support for the two-state-solution, the administration had no choice but to also stick with it.

The result is self-restraint. There is no official agreement between Israel and the US on settlements – the exact state of negotiations between the countries on this topic is not even clear. There is surely no understanding with the Palestinians that Israel’s decision will lead to renewed negotiations. There is hardly any outcry of enthusiasm from the Palestinians of from other world powers following Israel’s statement of restriction. The decision concerning settlements is an internal manifestation of caution: Netanyahu is not yet certain where the Trump administration is going, and he prefers to play it safe with a president whose policies can shift with the speed of a tweet.

Israel’s lack of certainty is not a good opening for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. True – it makes Netanyahu cautious with regards to the Americans. It will also make him cautious when it comes to taking other risks, and all moves forward in negotiations involve risks.

Note this: Israel has only moved forward – or was assumed to move forward – in negotiations with the Palestinians when the support of the American administration seemed solid, only when an Israeli leader assumed that he had the strong backing of a US president. That was the case with Rabin and Clinton; that was the case with Barak and Clinton; that was the case when Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip, backed by President George W. Bush; and that was the case with Ehud Olmert, backed by Bush. In the last eight years there was no moving forward not just because of Netanyahu’s term in office – the lack of movement was also because Israel’s government, and public, did not feel that they have the backing of an American president that can be counted on when Israel takes risks.

President Obama did not give Israelis a lot of reasons to trust him. And they did not trust him. Donald Trump – in a different way – is repeating a similar path. Obama put Israelis at unease by hinting that he sees Israel as the principle culprit in blocking Middle East peace. Trump put Israelis at unease with his abrupt manner and unexpected bursts. In other words: Israeli decision makers did not trust Obama because they assumed they knew him. Israeli decision makers have difficulties in trusting Trump because they don’t know him. Because it seems impossible to know him – in the sense of being able to anticipate his next move.

Thus, restricting settlement building is not a sign that Israel is willing to move forward and take more risks in order to have peace with the Palestinians. It is a sign that Israel is hesitant to move forward and prefers to play it safe. It is taking the necessary steps so as not to hand President Trump any ammunition with which he can hammer Israel or blame it for his failure to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement. It is taking the steps that one takes when one feels uncertainty – not the steps that one takes when one feels secure in having the backing of one’s ally.