Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The Trump Administration Settles In on Settlements

by Elliott Abrams
April 2, 2017


Israeli settlement activity has been in the news this past week because the Trump administration is steadily defining its policy.

What has emerged is a good policy: sensible, flexible, and realistic. Which is to say, it’s a lot like Bush policy.

Obama policy had made construction in the settlements a sore point for eight full years. This was one reason among many for the constant tension between the government of Israel and that of the United States during all of Mr. Obama’s term in office.

What are the terms of the agreement between the Netanyahu government and the Trump administration? First, there is no written agreement and that’s a good thing. There are understandings. That means there can be some arguments, but no accusations that “you’re violating what you signed!” Second, the Trump administration understands that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and does not view construction there as “settlement activity.” Third, there will be no new settlements built except the one being created for the people evicted from Amona, a settlement deemed illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court. Netanyahu apparently persuaded the administration that he had made that commitment last year, before the Trump presidency, and needed to keep it. Fourth, new construction in settlements in the West Bank will be in already built-up areas, or if that’s impossible, as close to them as possible. Fifth, there will be some restraint in the pace of settlement expansion. Sixth, apparently Netanyahu agreed not to permit new “outposts” to be built–small groups of houses erected without government permission. And finally, there will be no annexation of land in the West Bank.

This is very close to the Bush-Sharon understandings of 2003 and 2004. Our “deal” was no new settlements, no seizure of additional land for settlements, construction in already built-up areas, and no financial inducements to move to a settlement (e.g. a cheap, government-provided  mortgage). The goals are the same: to limit the physical expansion of settlements so that the Israeli footprint in the West Bank does not become larger and larger; to keep most population growth in the larger blocks that will remain with Israel in any final status agreement; and to prevent this issue from occupying center stage and being a constant irritant to the two governments.

This is smart. The alternative approach, that of the Obama administration under George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, was not. By treating all construction–in Jerusalem, the major blocks, and the smallest outlying settlements–exactly the same, that Obama approach created a huge Israeli consensus against U.S. policy. The Trump approach is politically sensible: most Israelis do not think of construction in Jerusalem or the big settlements like Ma’ale Adumim to be anything like construction in some tiny settlement far beyond the Israeli security barrier. So this deal should be sustainable.

There will no doubt be arguments, as noted, over some questions: for example, is some new apartment house really as close to the already built-up area as it can be? But we dealt with such matters in the Bush years. The prime minister’s office would call, we’d discuss what was planned, and we would not allow these things to sour the terrific relationship between the president and the prime minister, or between the two governments. That’s the way it should be, and that appears to be what President Trump has in mind.


Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Martin Ingall

    Over the years Elliot Abrams has reduced himself to a cheerleader for the foreseeably debunked Oslo Accords. He is now officially a RINO who is afraid to be anything but a part of the “peace” process club. This is a silly article. It is not in the US interest to perpetuate the idea that the Mohammaden Arabs are capable of accepting Israel’s existence, nor is it in the Israeli interest for that matter. No amount of evidence, of proof, of transpirations, of proclamations, of polls, of violence, of policies, of behaviors, of clarity will bring Abrams and his ilk around, as reality detchment disorder is the derangement of choice for matters Middle East.

  • Posted by Archie

    Its a one sided situation to think Israel will honor any thing.

    They will not conceed or acceed to any good for the Palestinoins

    To think that the Israelis will accept peace in the region is ludicrous

    Israelis can’t bet trusted and that is the bottome line

    Each passing year the Israeli foot print and land grab gets worse

    The whole world looks on

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