For the first dozen days of the Trump administration, it seemed to Israelis that they had a free hand to settle the West Bank. Israel announced its intention to build thousands of new houses, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the Knesset and declared that Israel would establish its first new settlement in decades. Washington said nothing.
Then, last Thursday night, the White House press secretary issued a statement that caught many in Washington—and Israel—off guard. The statement proclaimed 50 years of American continuity in seeking Israeli-Palestinian peace. It also reiterated President Trump’s personal desire to “achieve peace throughout the Middle East region”—another way of saying a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement.
But the statement also included two sentences that Israelis have been parsing ever since.
While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal…The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.
Not surprisingly, Israelis are in sharp disagreement over the meaning of these words. Writing in the mainstream Yedioth Ahronoth, Alex Fishman and Orly Azulai stated, “The White House issued a message that new settlements are an obstacle to peace.” In contrast, Ariel Kahane, proclaimed on the pro-settler Israeli website NRG.co.il, “No matter which way you look at it, the White House’s statement about Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria is wonderful news.”
No wonder Israelis are confused; packed into those two sentences are a number of messages.
First, the Trump administration’s statement represents a dramatically divergence on settlements philosophically from the Obama administration. The Obama administration clearly saw settlement activity as a primary reason for their failed peacemaking efforts, with Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly declaring settlements “illegitimate” and, at least tacitly, illegal.
The Trump administration is registering a strong disagreement in principle: analytically, existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not an impediment to peace. At the same time, the statement declares the White House philosophically uncommitted on the issue of future settlement activity, and called this an issue for future discussions with the Israeli government.
Against this philosophical framework, the new White House at the same time drew a gentle yet unambiguous red line around certain Israeli settlement activities in practice, specifically against new settlements and the expansion of existing settlements “beyond their current borders.” Settlement activity, per se, is not necessarily a problem for President Trump. However expanding settlements territorially—i.e. building on more West Bank land—is not acceptable.
This is a repackaging and reaffirmation of the settlement policy adopted by President George W. Bush that essentially said settlement activities are acceptable if they do not go beyond the building lines of existing settlements. That approach sought to neutralize any adverse impact of what Israelis call “natural growth”—expansion of the population among the more than half-million Israelis considered settlers by the international community. At the same time, putting in place a territorial limitation leaves open the potential for a viable, contiguous, and sovereign Palestinian state—something opposed by the ideological hard-right in Israel.
Last Thursday’s statement is a huge disappointment to those Israelis who had believed they had a tacit green light from the Trump administration to settle anywhere in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The United States has now clearly set some limits.
Yet for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Trump statement has evident benefits. It is a setback to the prime minister’s right-wing challengers in his party and in his cabinet who have been calling on the prime minister to devote more resources to the settlements. Netanyahu can now say that with its recent spate of building announcements, Israel has tested the limits of the Trump administration and that to go further would be harmful.
But the statement was also a clear message to Netanyahu: President Trump plans to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and he expects a constructive discussion about settlements when the two leaders meet in Washington next week.