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The endgame lurking behind Netanyahu's new settlement policy

Netanyahu’s new settlement policy doesn’t just pave the way for massive construction in the West Bank — it also, with the blessing of a right-wing U.S. president, risks freezing Palestinians out of the diplomatic process entirely.

By Mitchell Plitnick

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the press in front of construction in the Har Homa settlement in Jerusalem, March 16, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the press in front of construction in the Har Homa settlement in Jerusalem, March 16, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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:

1) Israel will build in “previously developed areas.”

2) Where such construction is not permitted, Israel will allow expansion in areas adjacent to the developed areas.

3) “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.”

4) 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.

Mobile homes and fruit trees represent the expanding edges of the Israeli settlement of Ma'on, which is taking land from the South Hebron Hills village of Al Tuwani, West Bank, April 2, 2014. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

Mobile homes and fruit trees represent the expanding edges of the Israeli settlement of Ma’on, which is taking land from the South Hebron Hills village of Al Tuwani, West Bank, April 2, 2014. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org)

“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 establishing 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.

‘I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out,’ Donald Trump tells Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House press conference, February 15, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

‘I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit. We’ll work something out,’ Donald Trump tells Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House press conference, February 15, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

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.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas address the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s 70th session, September 20, 2015. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas address the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s 70th session, September 20, 2015. (UN Photo/Cia Pak)

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.

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst.

This article was first published on Lobelog.com, and is reprinted here with permission.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Bruce Gould

      “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.”

      The legal stuff makes my eyes glaze over, but those people who want a careful analysis of Israel’s strange interpretations of international law should read the first chapter of Gershon Shafir’s “A Half Century of Occupation” (Shafir is a sociologist at UC San Diego). P. 23: “I suggest it is time to replace the Israeli assertion of being ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ with the claim of being ‘the most legalistic country in the Middle East’ “.

      Reply to Comment
      • i_like_ike52

        Please don’t preach to us about “international law”. What did international law say about Saddam Hussein’s Anfal operation using poison gas against his own Kurdish citizens, or his use of illegal chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq war?” How about what Assad just did with Sarin gas? Is that “illegal” according to international law.?
        We see that “international law” is enforced only when it suits certain people and when the Russians don’t veto enforcement in the UN Security Council.
        Getting puffed up about “international law” when referring to Jews living in their own homeland is preposterous when it is ignored when dealing with actual criminal activity.

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Bruce Gould

        It’s a country run by Jews. The whole religion is based on following the literally wording while trying to get around the intent.

        Reply to Comment
    2. i_like_ike52

      Jews had been living in what is now the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem for thousands of years before being expelled upon the occupation of those areas by Jordan and Egypt in the 1948 war. To say it is “illegal” for Jews to live in those areas is a historical obcenity.

      Reply to Comment
      • Gearoid

        It’s a legal fact, and your deflection to a mostly mythologized history proves you know you are lying.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Firentis

      “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.”

      Hahaha. What happened to the Bush letter to Sharon? What happened to the American commitment to veto anti-Israel UNSC resolutions? How about American commitments to dismantling Iran’s nuclear program? How about American commitments to block the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East? How about American commitments to stay in Iraq until it is stable?

      I remember how courageous Obama was in ripping up commitments made by the previous administration. Turnabout is fair play.

      Also, I’ve been reading this page for a while now.. I was under the impression that Abu Mazen doesn’t need to do anything, and certainly not, heaven forbid, negotiate with Israel. I was told international pressure will take care of the rest and the Palestinians just need to wait. How is that working out?

      Reply to Comment
    4. JeffB

      I just want to comment on one line mainly for the benefit of the Israelis and Palestinians reading this. The author is I think American and should know better: 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.

      First off the problem with this line is not specific to the I/P dispute. It comes up if anything more often with Europe about unrelated issues: the constant problem of getting Europeans in particular and I guess Israeli leftists to understand: The United States does not have a parliamentary system.

      Actually according to USA law agreements with presidents do disappear and they should disappear because the USA has a separation of powers. An agreement with a USA president is valid with that president. His successor may or may not agree to honor it. They usually do since most agreements are a next good, but presidents are not empowered to incur obligations on the United States beyond their term in office. If a country wants to make a binding agreement with the United States the appropriate vehicle for that is the United States Senate, not a USA President.

      Now of course an agreement with a President takes 1 guy. An agreement with the Senate requires 67 out of 100 Senators. That’s a much higher bar. It is meant to be a much higher bar. The Founding Fathers wanted to give the President flexibility to handle short term diplomacy but allow the Congress to govern what America’s long term positions would be.

      The rest of the essay I agree with. The author is right. Time does not stand still. The world is having enough of dealing with Abbas’ positions and is getting close to imposing a settlement.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This is not really the point. The longstanding US policy that Plitnick is discussing is not simply some narrow agreement with a single president. (Anymore than Trump (idiotically; but I digress) announcing NATO was suddenly obsolete, before he said his statement about NATO being obsolete was obsolete, was simply an example of a president simply changing “an agreement.”)
        The world I would say is tired of Israel’s endless trickery and law breaking and mistreatment of human beings, not Abbas’ “positions.” Plitnick’s honest article is one long description of deviousness and bad faith. Netanyahu is not Israel’s accidental leader. His character, well documented, epitomizes the current state of Israel and its government.

        Reply to Comment