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Case Analysis 19 February, 2017

The Netanyahu-Trump Meeting: Settlement First

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections delighted both the Israeli government and large sections of Israeli society, in particular that nation’s right and far right. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government sees the Trump victory as heralding a new phase in relations with Washington after years of tension with the Barak Obama administration. The belief is that this phase can provide Israel with a historic opportunity to—as a start—launch a settlement drive in all parts of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.      

After Trump’s victory the Netanyahu government held a series of conversations with the new President and his aides. Contact ramped up both immediately before and after Trump’s inauguration. Previous experience had revealed gaps between the statements of US presidential candidates during the election campaign, and their positions and attitudes once in power. For Netanyahu, communication with the president elect sought to pin down Trump’s intentions and his positions on a range of issues, foremost among these the issue of settlements. It was to this end that Netanyahu twice sent in secret the head of his intelligence agency (Mossad) Yossi Cohen and acting Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Nagel to the United States to meet with Trump’s aides. The meetings also proved a chance to coordinate bilateral positions. The first visit took place at the beginning of December 2016, and the second on January 18, 2017—two days before Trump’s inauguration. Israel’s top intelligence officials met with former US national security advisor Michael Flynn as well as a host of other officials.[1]  An apparent reciprocal visit on January 26 saw former mayor of New York and President Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani visit Israel to meet with Netanyahu and convoy a message from Trump, believed to concern Israel’s decisions on settlement in preparation for the Netanyahu-Trump meeting.[2]

Trump’s Welcome for Settlement

Contact and consultation with the Trump administration, which had been pulling in different directions on both settlements and the Palestinian issue, confirmed Trump’s statements in support of settlement made during the election campaign.[3] Following these meetings, Netanyahu understood that if Israel launched an intensive settlement drive, there would be no negative reaction from Washington at this time. Netanyahu was thus able to exploit the first days of the Trump presidency to boost settlement in occupied Palestinian territories and present Washington with facts on the ground before any final policy on settlement was formulated. The moment Trump won the presidency, the construction of 450 settler-housing units in occupied East Jerusalem that was announced.[4] With nary a peep from Washington, the road was clear for a massive settlement expansion and historic policy change.

Two days after Trump assumed office, Netanyahu announced that he had decided to remove all policy constraints to the building of housing units in occupied East Jerusalem. He further told a meeting of the Israeli security cabinet that all Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank would remain under Israeli sovereignty. On the same day, the municipal council of Jerusalem, which presides over a ‘united’ but illegally annexed East Jerusalem, announced the construction of 556 settler units in occupied Eastern sector. 

On 24 January, Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that they had decided to build 2,500 housing units in Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.[5] On January 31, Lieberman announced that he had authorized the building of 3,000 new housing units in settlements located inside the occupied West Bank.[6] Then on February 7, the Israel’s parliamentary body the Knesset passed an immensely damaging law enabling the appropriation of occupied Palestinian land and allowing its confiscation by military authorities followed by hand over to Jewish colonizing groups. The law also gave legal status to Jewish settlement outposts established by force on private Palestinian land over the past decades, locations of settlement that had previously been considered illegal even in Israel.[7]

Reactions by the Trump Administration

The changes in legislation received no comment from Washington. This goes against the position of American administrations stretching back 50 years, and also contravenes the position of the UN Security Council, all of which have condemned Israeli settlement decisions. The only comment came with regard to the wave of new planned settlements. The White House clarified that while it did not consider existing settlements an obstacle to peace, the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank might interfere with any subsequent attempts. A statement explained that the new Trump administration had not yet finalized its official policy on settlement activity, but indicated a continued desire to act as a peace broker in the region.[8] This was a very soft position, and a marked shift from the earlier stance that saw settlement building as illegal and illegitimate.

Trump made this new position crystal clear in a February 10 interview with the daily right wing newspaper Israel Ha-Yom published by extreme right-wing Zionist billionaire Sheldon Adelson[9], where the new American leader stated:

They [settlements] don't help the process. ... There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we'll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.” In that interview Trump stated that he was trying to reach a deal acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians, and added, “I have very smart people working with me who know Israel and the Palestinians that say a deal can't be made. I disagree with them. I think a deal should be made, and it can be made.[10]

Trump was more evasive when it came to questions of moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The third time he was asked the US President spoke in noncommittal terms of the need to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians before finally explaining that he was studying the issue and that it was not an easy decision, saying, “I'm thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.”[11]

Netanyahu’s Consultations before the Meeting

In the week before the two leaders met, Netanyahu held a number of preparatory consultations with the leadership of the security agencies, notably the heads of military intelligence (Aman), Mossad, the research division of military intelligence, the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, the chief-of-staff of the Israeli army, senior officials from the National Security Council as well as Foreign Ministry, and the Israeli ambassador to Washington.[12] The officials discussed the list of subjects to be raised at Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump, including bilateral relations between Israel and the United States these could e strengthened. According to reports, also on the list were Palestinian issues, particularly Israel settlement in occupied areas, the Iranian nuclear dossier, Iran’s regional role, the situation in Syria, and finally the Israeli and American relationships with Arab states. The presence of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission chief further suggests Israeli nuclear programs were also discussed in relationship to the new US government.

On February 12, Netanyahu held a four-hour session with his security cabinet devoted to preparations for the Trump meeting. The officials at the meeting presented a widely united front on all major topics, except for the Palestine issue, which took up the majority of the four hours. Members of the extreme right wing Jewish Home Party Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked asked Netanyahu to present his counterpart with a clear position against the two-state solution, rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state in the occupied Palestinian areas, and signaling continued Israeli settlement activity in all parts of both the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The members asked that Netanyahu press Trump for guarantees that his administration would not place restrictions on continuing Jewish settlement in occupied Palestinian areas. A number of center-right Likud ministers present adopted a similar position.

Addressing these concerns, Netanyahu revealed the content of his telephone call with Trump two days after the US presidential inauguration. Israel’s Prime Minister said the new administration in Washington was keen to learn his position on the peace process, and asked whether he wanted to move forward in the peace process and how that might happen. Netanyahu told his cabinet that he related to Trump his continued support for the two-state solution and the reaching of a permanent resolution with the Palestinians. Netanyahu also clarified that he held the Palestinian leadership responsible for the failure of negotiations, citing their refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State and to make concessions. Netanyahu told his cabinet that Trump assured: “the Palestinians want to reach a permanent peace and will make concessions,” and affirmed his belief in the possibility of making a deal. “Trump’s character,” he told officials however, should be taken into account and that “we should be careful and not do things leading to a confrontation and cause an irreparable break.” Speaking directly to his cabinet, Netanyahu affirmed that when he met with Trump, he would confirm his commitment to the two-state solution and hold the Palestinians responsible for the absence of a solution.[13]

Conclusion 

In his first meeting with the new American president, Netanyahu worked to build personal trust and establish a working relationship that would be the basis for joint action on Israel’s strategic interests. He aimed to establish a shared understanding of red lines on the issues of: Israel’s nuclear weapons, the Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Iran’s influence in the region and Syria specifically, “terrorism,” the broader situation in Syria, and efforts to normalize Israel’s relations with the Arab states before a solution to the Palestinian issue could be reached. Netanyahu aimed to secure a renewed commitment from Trump’s administration to maintaining Israel’s qualitative superiority in advanced conventional weapons over all the Arab states and Iran, and an affirmation of the secret understanding on Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile.[14]

When it comes to a Palestinian state, Netanyahu is clearly continuing a game of politics. His assertion of support for the two-state solution despite ceaseless efforts to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state continues to mask true intentions. Trump’s assurances that the United States “will be content with any agreement reached by the two sides” remains vague enough that no direct change in policy is ventured in Tel Aviv. Israel is using the changing of the guard as an opportunity to expand and consolidate Jewish settlement, hedging his bets for the days to come, and testing US positions by seeking to legitimize the settlement project.  An acknowledgement of the legitimacy of so-called ‘settlement blocs’ that connect West Bank and East Jerusalem Jewish-only housing with territory legally recognized as Israeli would be a major win for Netanyahu.  This would almost irredeemably slice up the West Bank, sever access to Jerusalem, and make the administration of any Palestinian state nigh impossible. At the same time, Netanyahu will try to obtain a position from the Trump administration that adopts the formula of former president George W. Bush, affirming that any solution between Israel and the Palestinians must take into account existing demographics.

Netanyahu is also working to obtain a commitment from Washington that no pressure will be applied to return to the negotiations table, and a deal that the US will either block international pressure or use its UN Security Council veto to prevent any actions that might limit settlement growth. Within this context, it will be largely up to Washington as to whether or not the US Embassy to Israel will relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel seems all too happy to remain flexible on the issue in exchange for Trump’s  leniency on settlements.

 



To download a PDF version of this report, please click here or on the link above. This paper was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English editing team. To read the original Arabic version which appeared online on February 15, 2017, please click here.

[1] Barak Ravid and Amir Tibon, “Mossad chief met secretly with Trump’s national security advisor,” Haaretz, February 5, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.3626954

[2] Barak Ravid, “Giuliani meets Netanyahu and transmits a message in preparation for the meeting with Trump,” Haaretz, January 26, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politi/1.3435239

[3] During his election campaign Trump spoke many times about his commitment to transferring the American embassy to Jerusalem, but very infrequently about his support for the expansion of settlements. His assistants took on the task of speaking about supporting settlement on occupied territories, in particular David Friedman, Trump’s lawyer and friend, who he appointed as Ambassador to Israel. In 2003, Trump donated USD 10,000 to the settlement of Beit El situated in the occupied West Bank in response to a request from Friedman. The latter at that time was chairman of the American Friends of the Settlement of Beit El, which was raising about two million dollars per year. For Trump’s donation to the Beit El settlement see: Judi Malas, “In the past Trump donated USD 10,000 to Beit El settlement,” Haaretz, December 18, 2016; and for more on Trump’s position towards Israel see: “What a Trump Presidency Means for the Palestinian Cause,” Assessment Report, ACRPS, February 5, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://172.17.30.6:3030/sites/doiportal/en/politicalstudies/pages/what_a_trump_presidency_means_for_the_palestinian_cause.aspx

[4] Nir Hason, “After Trump swears the oath: Jerusalem municipal council authorizes construction of 566 settler homes beyond the Green Line,” Haaretz, January 22, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.3426277

[5] Barak Ravid and Jackie Khouri, “Prime Minister and Defence Minister authorize the construction of 2,500 settler homes in West Bank settlements,” Haaretz, January 26, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.3429264

[6] Gili Cohen, “Moments before the evacuation of Amona, Lieberman authorizes the construction of 3,000 settler homes,” Haaretz, February 1, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.3557003

[7] Jonathan Lis, “Knesset passes law confiscating Palestinians’ land,” Haaretz, February 7,2017, accessed on February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politi/1.3630778

[8] Amir Tibon, “Settlement expansion might not help peace,” Haaretz,February 3, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.3626136

[9] Trump gave this interview a few hours after meeting with Sheldon Adelson, who is known for his extreme right wing positions, particularly his support for settlement and the extreme right in Israel. Adelson donated USD 20 million to Trump’s election campaign. In meeting with Trump, Adelson aimed to influence him regarding two key issues: support for Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank and moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

[10]  “Trump: The Palestinians must also make concessions for peace”, Israel Hayom, February 12, 2017, accessed February 19, 2017 at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=40285

[11] Ibid.

[12] Itamar Eichner, “Consultations in preparation for the Netanyahu-Trump meeting: opposition to the Iranian presence in Syria,” Ynet website of Yediot Ahronot, February 12, 2017, accessed February 15, 2017 at: http://www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-4920892,00.html 

[13] Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu: I told Trump that I was for the two-state solution but the Palestinians reject it, and he said they will make concessions,” Haaretz, February 12, 2017.

[14] The secret agreement reached between US President Richard Nixon and Israeli Premier Golda Meir in September 1969 whereby the US consented to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons provided that this was not made public, and that no tests were carried out. This agreement has been renewed by every new US administration, principally since it does not have to pass Congress and is not legally binding on any new administration. For more see: Mahmoud Muharib, “Israel’s nuclear policy and national security decision making,” (Doha/Beirut: ACRPS, 2013) pp. 2-13.