Like a good businessman, Donald Trump managed to keep all parties satisfied after his long-awaited and still-cryptic statement on Israel’s settlement expansion policy.
Opponents of the Netanyahu government policy read the statement issued by the White House as a note of reassurance, albeit partial and insufficient, that America’s anti-settlement policy is still in place. At the same time, supporters of Jewish presence in the West Bank were left with a completely opposite impression, viewing Trump’s policy statement as a clear break with the previous administration’s critical approach toward Netanyahu’s policy.
“This is significant, but so much remains to be seen,” said David Halperin, executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, a group working to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “At a time in which we have a political atmosphere that is not conducive to a two state solution, preserving the option is a positive thing.”
Writing in Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper, diplomatic commentator Barak Ravid wrote: “The bottom line was perfectly clear. Not only is the Iranian government on warning – so is the Israeli government.” According to Haaretz, the White House statement “makes clear that even if at this stage there has been a change from Barack Obama’s policy, it isn’t dramatic.”
But things looked quite differently on the other side:
“Shocked at how wrong the media got it on @realDonaldTrump statement on settlements,” tweeted Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “This is a positive, SIGNIFICANT departure from #obama!” Brooks, like others on the right wing, focused on the pro-Netanyahu tone of the White House statement.
“What this letter does, in effect, is return the United States to the status quo ante before the Obama administration,” wrote conservative columnist John Podhoretz in Commentary.
“This returns U.S. policy to the notion that the physical acreage holding settlers should not increase but that the number of settlers is not at issue. This is a wholesale shift in America’s approach.”
The White House statement, issued late Thursday night, came as efforts by Israel to boost settlement activity after the American presidential transition reached their peak. Since Trump took office, the Netanyahu government announced the building of more than 3,000 new homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and kicked off planning work for a new settlement, the first to be built in decades. At the same time, Palestinians and their Arab allies have been voicing their alarm over the move. The Trump administration has not had any direct contact with the Palestinian Authority, but Jordan’s King Abdullah, on visit to Washington this week, conveyed the message to President Trump during their Thursday morning meeting, hours before the White House spoke out on the issue.
The statement was deliberately vague.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” the White House stated. Folded in to the otherwise supportive statement is a clear point of criticism toward the Israeli government. The administration, while rebuking the Obama worldview that saw any building action in the settlement as detrimental for the peace process, made clear that expansion beyond existing settlement boundaries should be curtailed.
This dual message left some advocates of a two-state solution clearly unsatisfied.
“The statement,” said Americans for Peace Now in a statement, “should be understood for what it is: a dangerous and unprecedented retreat from and reframing of longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy on settlements.” APN, which opposes Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, took issue with Trump’s assertion in the statement that “we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.” The group views this comment as legitimizing Israel’s right wing’s drive to create an unchangeable reality on the ground. “Only in an ‘alternative facts’ reality can such a movement — explicitly designed to impede a peace agreement — be characterized as not an impediment to peace,” APN said.
The broad gamut of reactions to Trump’s statement on Israel’s settlement activity indicates clearly that the new administration has yet to formulate an full blown strategy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is simply trying to ensure tensions do not boil over while it seeks to establish its policy.
“There’s a scenario,” speculated Halperin, “that this statement helps Netanyahu rein in far right pressure we’ve seen in recent weeks.”
The answer to all speculations about Trump’s true intent and direction was provided in the statement itself. “The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
Netanyahu is due in the White House on February 15.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman