by Mitchell Plitnick
On March 30, the Israeli government announced that it had approved the first new settlement in 20 years. The new settlement is part of the government’s compensation package to the settlers of the recently evacuated outpost named Amona. The Israeli courts had ordered the demolition of this illegally built settlement for the first-time way back in 2006. This February, Amona was finally removed.
But despite the controversy over the new settlement, it’s not actually the first new one in 20 years. True, it’s the first settlement in that time that the government publicly planned and did not claim to be part of an existing settlement. But in that period, outposts that were ostensibly illegal under Israeli law, have become legal when they declared themselves part of an existing settlement somewhere in the same general area. More recently, outposts have been legalized retroactively under a new law. So, this is the “first new settlement” only in the most technical, and largely meaningless, sense.
More important are the steps that both the Israeli and US governments are taking in the wake of the Israeli announcement. These are the real indicators of the policy taking shape in the discussions between the Trump and Netanyahu governments.
What Israel Is Saying
At a meeting last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel would adopt a new policy for settlement expansion to mollify the US administration. This policy would have four points:
- Israel will build in “previously developed areas.”
- Where such construction is not permitted, Israel will allow expansion in areas adjacent to the developed areas.
- “Where neither of these criteria are met, due to legal, security or topographical constraints, Israel will allow construction on the closest land possible to developed areas.”
- Israel will not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts.
This is what Netanyahu presents as a policy of restraint. In fact, however, the policy amounts to unrestrained growth. As Hagit Ofran of Peace Now points out, “If it’s permissible to build in the built-up area, adjacent to it and close to it – then, in practice, it’s possible to build everywhere.” But the point about outposts is even more telling.
Israel has always maintained that settlements do not violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of citizens of an occupying power to an occupied territory. Although most of the world (including the vast majority of international jurists and legal experts) rejects those arguments, for internal Israeli purposes Israeli law deems officially sanctioned settlements legal.
“Illegal outposts” are wildcat settlements, usually begun with just a few mobile homes on a hilltop. In some instances, these outposts have been taken down; in others, they have developed into small towns. That Netanyahu needed to announce that Israel would not permit illegal actions, which his government has not only permitted but retroactively legalized, highlights the absurdity of the policy.
Goals of the “New Policy”
The most notable aspect of Netanyahu’s announcement is what is not there: any mention of settlement blocs. For many years, since the exchange of letters in 2004 between US President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, there has been a tacit understanding between Washington and Jerusalem (though pointedly, not involving the Palestinian Authority) that Israel could, without controversy, continue to build up its so-called settlement blocs. Just how many blocs there are and which groups of settlements qualify as blocs has not always been clear, but the basic principle has been there.
In more recent years, voices in both the US and Israel like those of Dennis Ross, Elliott Abrams, and Isaac Herzog, among others, have called for a formal US agreement on the expansion of the blocs that differentiates between them and other settlements. This will only impede progress, as I’ve explained in the past. But now, Netanyahu has, under the guise of a policy of “restraint,” moved past even that scant limitation.
Netanyahu’s announcement may be intended to create the framework for settlement expansion in the Trump era. Netanyahu rarely faced anything from the Obama administration beyond tepid statements about US disagreement with Israeli policies, yet he was reluctant to go too far in defying Obama on settlements for fear of provoking a stronger reaction. With Donald Trump, however, Netanyahu wants to lay down a framework in the early months of the new administration that he can use to stretch the boundaries of settlement expansion. Doing so in terms of “limiting” that expansion allows Trump to appear that he is keeping Israel in check, while mollifying Netanyahu’s right flank.
In establshing that framework, Netanyahu knows he cannot be seen as its creator. Thus, he announces a “new policy,” a goodwill gesture toward Washington, not an agreement with Trump. This allows Trump to potentially extract further “concessions” down the road.
Domestically, Netanyahu has gotten virtually no pushback from his coalition. This should be very surprising. If Israel did voluntarily impose limits on settlement construction without any coordination with Washington, the Israeli right wing would ordinarily see such a move as a major concession that it would detest and protest. But this has not been the reaction because the policy does not limit Israeli settlement expansion in any material way.
In Tandem With Trump
The US response works hand in hand with Israel’s strategy, suggesting that, although Israel’s announcement was a unilateral step, it may also be a part of a coordinated plan. Given the recent visit of Trump’s envoy, Jason Greenblatt, to the region, this is a distinct possibility.
The White House’s statement on March 31 in response to Israel’s “new settlement” announcement was a clear departure from long-standing US policy. Accompanying a statement that “the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace,” the Trump administration “noted” that 2,000 new settlement tenders had already been announced before Trump took office, “before President Trump had a chance to lay out any expectations.”
The implication here is obvious, and it is made more than once in Trump’s statement. Trump says that agreements with prior administrations are moot. Excusing settlement expansion on the basis that it was a step taken during a prior administration is a stunning departure from the norms of international diplomacy. Yes, new presidents may change policies, but previous commitments and expectations do not simply vanish in the wind when a new administration comes to power.
Now, Netanyahu has voluntarily laid down parameters for settlement-building. Although many have already pointed out that this “new policy” is a sham, Trump’s statement strongly suggests that it will be the baseline from which Trump will ask for some further steps from Netanyahu. Perhaps Trump will press for building inly within established blocs. Maybe it will be something else. And those requests may elicit more of a response from Netanyahu’s coalition.
But those will be manageable, not the sorts of objections that could threaten Netanyahu’s government. That’s because the framework Netanyahu has now established allows for so much settlement expansion that any minor concessions will not translate into real limits. Netanyahu’s party and most of their coalition partners will understand this.
A Palestinian Response?
All of this has been greeted with deafening silence from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. This may be understandable, but it is also very dangerous.
Abbas seems to understand that a right-wing Republican president like Trump would find it easier to push for a peace agreement. Trump is less vulnerable to attacks from the right and, if he pursues a plan with some hope for success and to which Israel is at least minimally amenable, he is not likely to be besieged by Democrats. George W. Bush’s Roadmap and the Annapolis conference exemplify this reality. So, Abbas is trying to build some sort of positive relationship with Trump.
But what seems to be taking shape here is an endgame strategy: to present an Israel that is taking its own steps toward restraint and a US government that is still pushing for more. In the meantime, efforts will be redoubled in Washington, Amman, and Cairo to press forward with a regional initiative that widens public dialogue with Israel. The hope would be that this will lead to greater Arab pressure on Abbas to accept “the best deal you can get,” which is likely to include some arrangement for Israel to maintain its military presence in the Jordan Valley, annex the major settlement blocs, and leave the rest for the Palestinians to call a state.
The framework of a solution is being re-defined without any Palestinian involvement. This has happened in the past, and it’s never worked out well. The Bush-Sharon letters weakened the basis of territorial compromise to the extent that, when the newly minted President Obama referenced the 1967 borders, it became a matter of intense controversy. After those letters, it was assumed that Israel would keep its ill defined “settlement blocs” and the only question was what the Palestinians would get in return.
Another example is the notion of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, an unprecedented concept in international affairs. It was discussed for several years, but when the Obama administration agreed that it should be part of a final status agreement, the terms of negotiation changed and the Palestinians were faced with a condition that they could not meet domestically and could not escape internationally.
The same is happening now. The Palestinians are being isolated politically, and the West Bank is already chopped up by settlements physically. Trump seems intent on starting with his own new slate. Annexing parts of the West Bank is becoming a stronger possibility in Israel.
The Palestinians, whether the Palestinian Authority, Hamas or any other party, are slowly losing even the half-hearted support they have historically received from other Arab countries. The endgame is being dictated to them. Without protest, they will find that another axiom of this conflict can be broken: a “solution” could very well be suddenly imposed upon them.