By Gautam Sen*
US President Donald Trump voiced mild criticism of the Israeli government’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, at a dinner with a Jewish magnate on February 08, 2017. Thereafter on February 15, 2017, during Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official visit to Washington, Trump mildly rebuked Israel for expanding its settlements and advised that a compromise was necessary. More significantly, while not ruling out a two-state solution, Trump declared that he would be happy with any solution (a one-state or a two-state) that was acceptable to both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Analysts note that this is the first time the US has not explicitly supported a two-state solution.
The Netanyahu Government however is proceeding ahead with the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. There are presently more than 125 such settlements and nearly 100 outposts with approximately 400,000 Israelis residing in these enclaves. If the settlements are to be subsumed within Israel as part of a future agreement, the Palestinians would be left with a diminished territory for fulfillment of their socio-economic and political aspirations.
The settlement policy has assumed a new dimension of late, because, it will be executed henceforth within the statutory framework of the Regulation Law recently enacted by Israel’s Knesset. Despite continuous efforts of the international community and even after the adoption of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 in December 2016, enjoining on Israel to freeze and roll back its settlements, the Palestine Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas has not been able to do much to stall their settlement drive. The Arab countries, excepting perhaps Jordan, have many pressing issues on hand involving their immediate security and economic concerns and are not in a position to actively engage in support of the Palestinian cause. Now, with Trump’s reformulation of the US policy on Palestinian statehood, imponderables arise on whether Israel’s settlement drive can be checked at all through international pressure.
The White House press secretary had observed on February 02, 2017 that the US Government does not believe that the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, whereas the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond the current border may not be helpful to achieving peace between Israel and Palestine. Trump’s advocacy of restraint on Israel’s settlement policy, prior to apparently abandoning the two-state approach on Palestine, seems to be in line with the above-cited White House press statement.
The Trump administration’s position appears to be similar to the stand taken by former President George W. Bush in 2004 when, as a consequence of the Bush-Sharon dialogue, Israel was to limit the growth of settlements and remove unauthorised settlements, but the latter was not obligated to return to borders drawn up as per the armistice of 1949. Nikki Haley, the US permanent representative to the UN, has however observed that there is no question of abandoning the two-state policy though attempts are on within her government for an out-of-the-box solution.
Netanyahu meanwhile is on a politically shaky ground domestically, owing to rumblings within his right wing Likud Party-led coalition government. Avigdor Liberman (present defence minister) and his Yisrael Beiteinu party joined the ruling coalition a few months back and mounted pressure for a more aggressive posture on Palestine. Netanyahu therefore cannot be seen to be abandoning or conceding on the present expansive settlement policy propagated by the hardliners within his political combine, particularly after the passing of the Regulation Law.
The Law incidentally enables the consolidation of settlements by obliterating the distinction between those that were aggressively set up like Itama — deep in the West Bank and Ma’ale Adumin — a commuter settlement on the suburb of Jerusalem. It therefore legitimises usurpation of territory not abutting the original state of Israel but far beyond. Netanyahu is also aware that the Law which sanctifies the settlement policy may not survive for long and may be overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court on grounds of inequity and on the premise that it is technically outside the Israeli constitutional ambit. He has to therefore derive the maximum mileage from the existing settlement policy and the Law within a short span of time. The Israeli premier has also perforce to extract the most favourable outcome from the Trump administration.
The Trump administration may not be oblivious to the possibility of escalation of tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians as a result of continuing settlements policy.
It is possible that the US president will keep in view the broader US interests in West Asia — where negative repercussions of the US policies vis-à-vis Palestine cannot be ruled out. Unlike the Barack Obama administration, Trump will not allow any formal condemnation of Israel in international fora like the UNSC. His government is also likely to maintain and upgrade the US-Israel economic and defence ties. It is in the US interest however not to encourage Israeli policies that could possibly lead to further radicalisation of Palestinians in the West Bank and those in Gaza, by elements like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other similar outfits.
Given the above, Trump may continue to exert some restraining influence on Israel’s settlement policy, at least in the short term. A significant check on Israel’s aggressive settlement policy in the near future may de facto arise from within its polity, i.e. from its legal institutions and moderate political and social groups. Reinforcing these efforts can only be possible if Trump realises the futility of promoting a single state of Israel with a restive Palestinian populace within. This would only increase the prospects of greater radicalisation of large segments of the latter and those in the peripheral regions, which would be against the US interests.
*The author is a commentator on international affairs and a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions of Government of India and a State Government. The views expressed are the author’s own. Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://idsa.in/idsacomments/trump-and-israeli-settlements-expansion_gsen_220217