Tel Aviv — The surprise election victory of Donald Trump might have shocked the world, but among politicians and settlement advocates on the Israeli right, it spurred hope for a paradigm shift on Israeli-Palestinian relations and the peace process.
After eight years of hearing frequent condemnation from the Obama administration over settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, there is an expectation that the incoming U.S. government and the Republican-controlled Congress will dial back its involvement in Israeli-Palestinian affairs.
But the optimism goes far beyond settlement policy. After more than two decades in which reaching the two-state solution was one of the cornerstones of U.S. policy in the region, the prospect of a new president who is a blank slate on foreign policy issues opens a window for Israeli opponents of a Palestinian state to bury the concept once and for all.
“The combination of the changes in the U.S., in Europe and the region provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything. I view it as my goal to place it on the agenda of the cabinet so we don’t follow old paths that were unsuccessful,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said in a press conference on Monday.
“It is no secret that I think that setting up a Palestine in the heart of Israel is a profound mistake. I believe that we have to bring alternative new ideas — instead of the Palestinian state approach. We have to say what we want.”
On the day after the election, the education minister was even more blunt about the implications of the vote: “The era of the Palestinian state is over,” he declared.
Other pro-settlement advocates said that with the coming changeover in Washington, it was time for Israel’s government to embark on a wave of settlement expansion. “All the times, there were excuses why not to build,” said one proponent of Israeli expansion throughout east Jerusalem. “Now there are no excuses.”
On the day after the election results the pro-settlement “Land of Israel” caucus in the Israeli parliament held a special meeting to celebrate the vote. “We believe that the policy of freezing and blocking settlement expansion is over,” said Yoav Kish, a Likud parliament member. “It’s time we stop talking about two states, and we start talking about building, settlements and sovereignty.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, peacenik activists were also anticipating a change in the battle to work toward a peace deal with the Palestinians. With the end of the Obama administration, the Israeli peace camp will lose an important voice from abroad that frequently echoes their criticism of the Israeli government policy in the West Bank.
But among experts on national security and Israeli-U.S. relations, the fallout of the elections for Israel is less clear. Trump, they acknowledged, has made contradictory statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s said that he wants to be a “neutral broker” in peace talks, and also vowed to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and formally recognize the city as Israel’s capital.
“It is too early, premature and not wise” for Israelis to inflate expectations about Trump’s policy toward the Middle East,” said Yakov Armidror, a former head of the Israeli National Security Council, in a call with reporters. “We need to wait and see, and not make decisions for the Americans.”
In a policy paper published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, former army intelligence chief Amos Yadlin wrote that the incoming president’s approach to Israel is “difficult to define. It therefore makes little sense to attribute what is ostensibly known and not yet known about the incoming administration’s Middle East policy.
Yadlin wrote that Israel needs to help re-establish the trust that was lost amid the estrangement between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. He also stressed that the dialogue with the new administration needs to focus on the U.S. role in the Middle East. “The U.S. is the only country that can contain Iran’s aspiration to expand its influence through the region, grapple with the Islamic State and keep Turkey’s hopes for greater regional power in check,” Yadlin argued.
But other experts noted Trump’s isolationist themes that he struck during the campaign such as curtailing foreign aid to allies and questioning U.S. commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“What might make you think that Trump would be indifferent to Israel’s policy in the West Bank, is that his basic foreign policy outlook is to be less engaging,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University who cautioned that a U.S. pullback comes with risks.
“If you neglect Israelis and the Palestinians, and give no horizon to the Palestinians… With Abbas already weak, the Palestinian Authority could just unravel. And when the PA unravels you could imagine there will be violence against Israel.”
Rynhold said that Trump could be the first non-internationalist president in more than a generation, and that would problematic for Israel.
“When the U.S. takes a step backwards, that leads to a vacuum which is filled either by greater instability or forces hostile to Israel. Things will get more hostile. I’m sure he knows about Republican isolationism in the 1930s, and that worries him.”
Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Zalman Shoval said also that it’s a mistake to assume that “everything has changed with regards to basic questions about the Middle East.” Israelis shouldn’t be under the “illusion that everything is OK now.”
That said, with Trump in the White House, and the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress and, eventually, the Supreme Court, Israel is in a good starting position for a reset of ties with the U.S. — especially on expectations regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations.
“I don’t see a 180-degree change in American positions which have been valid since the early 1970s,” he said. “On the other hand I see the possibility for a good understanding on what can be done.”
Writing in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, former national security council director Giora Eiland said that the election is an opportunity for Israel to think beyond the conflict-management approach of the current government and the 16-year-old Clinton parameters for a two-state solution that were never successfully realized. Among the alternatives suggested by Eiland, Israel should consider plans for a confederation between the West Bank and Jordan or even Bennett’s plan for annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank with “autonomy on steroids” for the Palestinians.
Letting the Palestinian conflict fester through a managed status quo risks a third Intifada, he wrote. “More importantly,” continued Eiland, “the Trump administration could actually be attentive to other solutions. If we waste the next four years, we may regret it in the future.”