On a recent Israel Policy Forum mission to Israel and Jordan, our group met with or heard from a long list of leading politicians, security officials, the heads of prominent think tanks and well-known journalists. Among them were Yair Lapid, who is leading in recent polls; Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman; opposition leader Isaac Herzog; the spokesperson for Prime Minister Netanyahu; three potential successors to Mahmoud Abbas (Jibril Rajoub, former head of the Palestinian Authority Preventive Security; Saeb Erekat, the PA’s chief negotiator; and Majed Faraj, the current head of the Palestinian Authority Preventive Security); the head of Commanders for Israel’s Security; a group of 250 retired IDF generals and their counterparts in the security services and National Police; the U.S. ambassador to Jordan; and a close policy adviser to King Abdullah.
Having just returned, I believe the situation regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can best be described as one of uncertainty.
Regarding Israel, as the head of one of the think tanks put it this way: “Everyone is in election mode” awaiting the outcome of the multiple investigations of the prime minister. (One is for accepting hundreds of thousands of shekels of gifts [expensive cigars, champagne and jewelry, as examples]; another for allegedly attempting to make a deal with the publisher of a major newspaper to improve its coverage of him; a third involves a submarine purchase contract; and a fourth, the details of which are not public.) The prime minister has strongly asserted that these investigations will “lead to nothing” and blamed a biased, left wing media for his travails. Whether the investigations will lead to indictments and, if they do, whether the prime minister will resign, which he is not required to do short of a conviction and the affirming of that conviction by the courts, remains to be seen.
Also, there is the hope, possibly misplaced (see below) that the new U.S. administration will be more supportive of the settlement movement. The governing coalition has passed the bill legalizing what even Israel has acknowledged in the past are illegal outposts built on Palestinian land (a bill that Israel’s attorney general, who was appointed by the prime minister, has said he cannot defend in the Supreme Court); Naftali Bennet, the head of the Jewish Home Party, which is part of the governing coalition, has stepped up his attacks on the prime minister’s postponement of the legislation to annex Maale Adumim, which is on the outskirts of Jerusalem and 50 kilometers of land surrounding it including the area known as E1 until after his meeting with President Trump, now scheduled for Feb. 15; and Lapid and Lieberman are de-emphasizing their support for a two-state solution and their positions that Israel should not build outside the settlement blocs. Lieberman has also resurrected his controversial position that three Arab villages in the north of Israel and their Israeli Arab citizens, many of whose families have lived in these villages since before Israel was established, should be swapped and become part the future state of Palestine.
Regarding the U.S., everyone is awaiting some clarity on what the Trump administration’s policy on Israel will be. As stated above, the right wing in Israel and the U.S. have confidently proclaimed that U.S. policy will change and that Israel will be given much more freedom to, among other things, expand the building of settlements in the West Bank. Bennet and Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, have gone so far as to proclaim the demise of the two-state solution. The deletion from the Republican platform of any reference to a two-state solution and the appointment of David Friedman as U.S. ambassador to Israel gives them a basis to claim that. He is the long-term president of American Friends of the Beit El Yeshiva in the West Bank and has expressed his opposition to a two-state solution. And, the president’s initial decision not to criticize the recent announcement of new construction in the settlements, as the Obama administration would surely have, was welcomed on the right in Israel and attacked on the left and by the Palestinians.
A statement issued last week by a “senior official” in the administration has called into question the assumptions referenced above. In it, the official reiterated the president’s commitment to “reaching a deal that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and urging “all parties from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.” That statement is consistent with candidate Trump’s first comment on Israel — that he wants to do the ultimate deal between the Israelis and Palestinians and, therefore, will be neutral, his recent designation of his son-in-law and now senior adviser, Jared Kushner to bring that deal about and the position expressed by Secretary of Defense Mattis that Israel should not build outside the settlement blocs. On the other hand, press secretary Sean Spicer created some ambiguity when he refused to commit the administration to a two-state solution, saying only that the president wants peace.
The other issue that was much discussed in Israel while we were there was the movement of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a promise made by candidate Trump and every other presidential candidate in recent memory but never done and reiterated by President Trump. Recent statements by Spicer and others suggest, however, that any such action will not take place in the near future.
More clarity may come after the Feb. 15 meeting between the president and the prime minister, particularly as regards the building and expansion of settlements, the proposed annexation of Maale Adumim and its environs, the legislation legalizing the outposts and the president’s decision on moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
The author is a past Chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League. The view expressed are his own.