As I wrote here last week, I believe that Israel’s apparent tactic of injecting unprecedented energy into the settlement enterprise simply because the new US administration seemed, up to now, unquestionably supportive of it, is an extremely risky strategem for its future.
To illustrate why, I depicted a doomsday-like, worst-case-scenario reaction to an Israeli annexation of Area C (61%) of the West Bank, as many within it are planning and actively working towards.
I offered the possibility that given the often fragile reasons upon which the two major and one minor intifadas have been triggered (former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the temple mount, social media fabrications) that this would probably spark both a third, domestic intifada.
I offered with less conviction the more worrisome possibility that it could also trigger a second, 1967-style pan-Arab attempt to obliterate the country given that, in the eyes of many and certainly of the Arab world, the move would effectively spell the practical end of the two state process.
I also offered the possibility that, given Trump’s history of political instability, if he were to withdraw diplomatic and military support for Israel at this perilous juncture – either as part of a pre-meditated ‘trojan horse’ tactic to abandon it at its point of maximum vulnerability, or, more realistically, simply for populist reasons – that the repercussions for the country could be catastrophic.
An unreliable ally
Since writing that post, there have been two noteworthy developments that I believe will characterize the dynamics of the bilateral relationship between Israel and the US for months to come.
Settlement building has continued to push along in high gear, with the total number of units announced since the beginning of Trump’s presidency now exceeding 5,500 in the West Bank and 550 in East Jerusalem (a further 3,000 units were announced mid-week).
Significantly, although the government followed through with the delayed evacuation of Amona this week, which it considered to be an illegal outpost built on private Palestinian land, it also announced, on Wednesday, plans to construct the first entirely new settlement in 25 years, its exact location still unannounced.
The US continued, once more, with what seemed to be a newfound policy of not condemning the announcements, which many seem to have taken to signal its tactic approval for the moves.
That remained the case until late yesterday evening, when the White House broke its silence by issuing a statement opining that:
the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal [peace]”
all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.”
Although the statement does state that the administration doesn’t “believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace” — a strong break with previous administrations’ policy – the seeming sudden about-face provides prime minister Netanyahu with clear evidence that Trump’s foreign policy, which seems to be in a process of ongoing formulation, simply can’t be relied upon under any circumstance.
If Israel was hoping that it could quietly continue expanding and announcing new settlements without raising the ire or eyebrow of the Americans, its hopes for that level of support have now squarely been dashed.
The statement should provide the Israeli government with an opportunity to engage in serious pause for thought about the sagacity of its most far-reaching plans in the West Bank before it is too late to do so.
Israel must also decide upon a coherent means for navigating a presidency that seems to hold a far greater potential for volatility than the Obama era or that of any previous US administration did. At the very least, it demonstrates Donald Trump to be an unstable and unreliable ally.
The White House statement offers Israel a fork in the road still very early in its relationship with the new US administration.
Whether Israel can draw from it the message more important than the reproach to its settlement building – that Trump’s foreign policy cannot be expected to remain consistent and reliable — remains to be seen.