How Trump’s reaction to the failure of the health care bill may affect Israeli settlement building
The failure of the Republicans even to bring their health care bill to a vote in the House of Representatives was a monumental embarrassment. After their repeated commitment to their constituents to repeal and replace Obamacare and their many votes for repeal on the House floor, they looked totally inept. But their failure was also a major defeat for the Trump Administration and the President, himself, who had vowed to get rid of Obamacare as one of the very first matters on his agenda. This failure hits the President where it hurts him the most – his ego and the picture that is the baseline of his entire presentation of himself to the public that of a great negotiator who knows better than anyone “the art of the deal.” As he invariably does, Trump will look for scapegoats and excuses to move blame away from himself but this will be difficult to do in the light of his personal commitment all through his campaign (by one count 68 times) to put an end to Obamacare which he called a “disaster” and replace it with something much better.
Trump’s time honored technique when he suffers a setback and can’t effectively blame someone else is to change the subject in some fashion to demonstrate that he is truly enormously successful and deserves public acclaim. With the failure of the health care bill he may also have problems moving forward his agenda for tax reform and for massive infrastructure spending. So it is very possible that he will try to focus public attention on what he has called the “ultimate deal;” to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
By every account, it appears that the recent visit of Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, to the region was a disappointment if not a significant setback for Prime Minister Netanyahu. However Netanyahu might have interpreted Trump’s request to “hold back on settlements a little bit” and however free he thought he was to expand settlement activity when he left his meeting with Trump in February 15th, apparently Greenblatt’s message was much more restrictive. According to Israeli media reports, Greenblatt told Netanyahu that the Trump Administration would not oppose the construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods over the 1967 lines in East Jerusalem and would accept a quota for the number of new homes each year inside the major settlement blocs. But no new homes could be built in isolated settlements. This would not sit well with Netanyahu’s coalition partners and may frustrate his commitment to build an alternative settlement for evacuees from the Amona settlement.
Even before the health care debacle, Netanyahu had to be careful in handling Trump, not to challenge him openly. Now, he has to move even more gingerly on settlement activity to avoid giving Trump as excuse to attack him and Israel for endangering the “ultimate deal” and not allowing Trump to show his mastery of the “art of the deal.”
At a time when Netanyahu is subject to a police inquiry into issues of corruption and challenged for leadership of his country from the center, right and left it would be particularly politically damaging for him to be subjected to Trump’s ire. He is walking a tightrope – pressured from his rightwing coalition to speed up and broaden settlement activity and fearful of Trump’s reactions, especially now.
Robert K. Lifton is a businessman and political activist. He was a founder, Chair and currently is a Board member of the Israel Policy Forum. From 1988 to1994 he served as President of the American Jewish Congress and from 1994 to 2003 as co-Chair of The Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations.