Settler leaders who attended President Trump’s inauguration had barely stepped off their planes from Washington when their hopes for the new Trump era were answered. “I have agreed with the defense minister on 2,500 units in Judea and Samaria,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Tuesday, using the Hebrew term for the West Bank.
“We are building, and will continue to build,” he stressed.
It appears that Netanyahu made arrangements for the deal as soon as he hung up the phone from a long conversation with Trump on Sunday evening that the prime minister described as “very warm.”
We can assume that the two men discussed this settlement plan and agreed that the White House—in a shift from past U.S. policy—won’t oppose it.
And so, as Trump’s team is putting the brakes on his commitment to move the U.S. embassy in Israel, at least for the moment, it seems to be giving the nod to settlement building.
It wasn’t just settler leaders who are applauding the move. Their supporters in the United States were delighted, including Christian evangelicals, to see such a major settlement announcement so early in the administration.
(Also this week, the Jerusalem local planning committee approved building permits for 566 housing units in the east of the city, and Netanyahu reportedly told ministers that he’s lifting all restrictions from central government on Jerusalem construction. The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest U.S. denomination, warned in a statement Tuesday that the “green light” for settlement expansion constituted “a red light for the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state.” It further warned that “if indeed the Trump administration is condoning this — [it] is harmful to Israel’s future and Israel’s security.”)
It’s clear that Trump doesn’t have the same personal distaste for Netanyahu that President Obama did. In fact, Trump endorsed him ahead of Israel’s 2013 general election, calling him a “terrific guy, terrific leader, great for Israel.”
After years of tension and clashes with Trump’s predecessor, the prime minister was invited to visit the White House next month and received assurances of “unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security.”
Both Trump and Netanyahu are men who could go in either direction on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Trump has ties in settler circles, where the two-state solution is rejected. His appointed envoy to Israel, David Friedman, with whom he is close, has said that talk of a two-state solution “needs to end.” But the president has also expressed interest in being the dealmaker. Netanyahu enthuses about settlements, but has also committed himself to a two-state solution, and is thought by some to be able to pull it off if he wants.
Trump could be creating a new landscape where Israel gets to negotiate from a position of strength; giving Israel a massive bargaining chip to use for some demand from the Palestinians, such as renewal of peace talks or ending unilateral moves; or he could be indulging Netanyahu before hitting him with stark demands. It could also, of course, just be Trump taking a pro-settlement line.
With Netanyahu, there are several reasons why he wanted this construction coup.
Five days before the Washington inauguration, as Israel was criticized for settlements at the Paris peace conference, Netanyahu said in a transparent reference to Trump: “Tomorrow’s world will be different — and it is very near.” Netanyahu wants to show that he can leverage his influence in this new world to change the rules of the game for Israel.
This is a way of him stemming the rise of the Yesh Atid Party and its leader Yair Lapid; the centrist party has alarmed Netanyahu by becoming the biggest party in recent polls. What is behind Yesh Atid’s breakthrough? In large part Lapid’s success building his statesmanlike image and making people believe that he could represent them as prime minister. If Netanyahu can be the one getting his way with Washington — even if it’s on settlements and not other issues that Lapid supporters care about — it helps to restore Netanyahu’s image as the statesman who can get results.
The other man whose power worries Netanyahu is Naftali Bennett. Members of the right wing are Netanyahu’s natural supporters, but he is losing them to coalition frenemy Bennett, who hopes to draw in enough Bibi supporters to give his Jewish Home Party five more Knesset seats, according to recent polling.
These rightists see Netanyahu as too timid and restrained by what the world thinks when it comes to settlements. Bennett is their bold alternative, asserting that Israel should extend its sovereignty to the West Bank. The prime minister wants to restore his standing in the eyes of the right, by showing that while Bennett can talk, he can build.
As Feb. 8 approaches, Netanyahu’s challenge in keeping the settler right on his side is about to take on a whole new dimension. On this date Amona, a West Bank outpost, is due for demolition because it sits on privately owned Palestinian land.
Netanyahu made an agreement with residents for them to move to a nearby plot, but the High Court has just frozen this deal, following claims that this plot is also privately owned. Amona residents are seething, and the prime minister desperately wants to be able to say that he lost the battle to save Amona’s 40 homes but is delivering many more.
It seems that with his announcement this week Netanyahu may have also been trying to slam the brakes on “sovereignty” attempts.
The Jewish Home Party is trying to push a bill that would start extending Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank by annexing the settlement of Maale Adumim. Even a right-wing Trump administration could be angered if Jerusalem took such a move unilaterally, and Netanyahu was keen to delay discussion of this bill.
The legislation was put on hold on Sunday by the security cabinet, at least until Netanyahu returns from the White House; and settlement-building promises are thought to have helped secure the agreement of rightist ministers.
If the tone of the Trump approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been sketched out in recent days, namely yes to settlement building, no to annexation, with openness to direct peace talks if the Palestinians become more conciliatory, this could be music to Netanyahu’s ears.
If Netanyahu comes back from Washington next month confirming that with Trump he can take settler demands so far, but not all the way, to annexation, this would put Bennett’s demands off limits. It could potentially take the wind out of Jewish Home’s sail, and consolidate Netanyahu’s position as leader of the nationalist camp.
This could have relevance long before the next election. If the scandal surrounding police investigations into Netanyahu intensifies and his political future hangs in the balance, he’s far less likely to survive if he’s reliant on the public opinion of run-of-the-mill Israelis than if he has earned the strong support of an ideological camp that sees him as a warrior for the Land of Israel.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.