What's going on? Twice in the last week US President Donald Trump has opposed wide-scale Israeli settlement building on the West Bank. In Israel, Right-wingers have been shocked to the core - Trump and Bibi were supposed to be great pals. They had anticipated that Trump would give Israel the green light for constructing a brand new settlement and adding 5,500 new housing units to existing settlements. Moreover, there is the new controversial law that would enable Israel to legalize homes built on privately owned Palestinian land. But is this promising package is unraveling? In an exclusive interview with Yisrael Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper, Trump clarified his position:
When asked if the Palestinians should also be asked to make concessions, Trump replied:
'Yeah, they do, absolutely. It has to be a good deal for everybody. No deal is good if it is not good for everybody'.
It gets worse or better, depending on your political disposition. Palestinian officials have disclosed they have received reassurances from Washington that the US embassy will not be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem for the time being. The reassurances were also said to refer to Israeli settlement building.
The background to Trump-Netanyahu meeting on Feb.15th…
Prime Minister Netanyahu faced a storm of Right wing criticism after the government forcibly evacuated the settlement of Amona in compliance with both Israeli and international law. This was required because the homes were built on privately owned Palestinian land, which violates the Geneva Conventions. Under immense pressure from Jewish Home cabinet ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, Bibi passed a new bill that would legalize any other settlement building on private Palestinian land. Actually, the PM opposed the bill but gave in to Right wing pressure in order not to lose popularity with his power base in the Likud party.
As expected, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit refused to defend it in the High Court of Justice. Bibi had been quoted as saying if the Knesset passed the controversial bill 'he could be dragged off to the International Court of Justice in The Hague!' But Bennett and Shaked kept up the pressure, and why not if the PM would be dragged to Prague and not them? The government also announced that plan to build a new settlement as well as constructing 5,500 new housing units at existing settlements. Bibi found himself in a tight jam before his fateful first meeting with Trump.
The plot thickens: what if Bibi secretly conspired with Trump to get off the hook and outfox his Right-wing rivals in the government? If Trump would criticize new settlement building this would tie Bibi's hands. No sane Israeli politician wants to antagonize the mercurial President Donald Trump these days. And note this: A White House statement found no problem with building homes inside the 'current borders' of the existing settlements while it opposed creating any new settlements.
Does this ring a bell? Yes, it recalls the letter sent by President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that supported the inclusion of existing settlement blocs inside Israel in any future peace deal with the Palestinians! It may be a coincidence, but these are the facts. Not that the Land of Israel movement, which includes the vast majority of Likud Knesset Members and Jewish Home MKs, would accept it. They demand the whole of the West Bank and oppose the two-state solution. But at this juncture, a tough stand by Trump could help Bibi survive his current political headache that also includes three police investigations for fraud.
The Jerusalem quandary?
If it’s true that Trump will not move the embassy to Jerusalem this can also help Bibi! The PM is trying to cement ties with Sunni Arab countries who are also threatened by Iran and radical Islamists such as Daesh and Muslim Brother Brotherhood. Moving the embassy could spark a violent flare-up throughout the Arab world against both Israel and the US. Is this to Israel's benefit? It would also provide ammunition for rioting on the West Bank against Israel but also against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And would Hamas be far behind in Gaza?
What might be better statesmanship for both Trump and Netanyahu? The new President is sending his son-in-law Jaret Kushner on a new peace effort. What if after his meeting with Bibi, Trump announces a renewal of the peace mission and calls on both Bibi and Abbas to make some goodwill gestures to facilitate it? After being tarred and feathered for his unconventional comments in the international arena, Trump could do with some positive peace-making moves. This would also aid the Israeli leader's attempt to upgrade ties with the Arab world. And what if Trump were to invite Abbas to the White House? That would be something.
PS: American jurist Alan Dershowitz, a friend of Bibi, has also gotten into the act. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Dershowitz helped out Bibi by blasting the law that legalized retroactively Israeli building on private Palestinian land. Dershowitz praised Attorney General Mandelblit for refusing to defend it when petitions to repeal it are heard by Israel's Supreme Court. However, Dershowitz added he would feel comfortable defending Netanyahu in the International Court of Justice in The Hague because that body should be hearing such shocking cases as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria and not 'property disputes'. On the other hand, he disagreed with the police investigations such as to whether Prime Minister Netanyahu had received too many cigars as gifts, and he viewed it as an attempt to criminalize the Prime Minister who had been duly elected. If there are grounds, the enquiries should be postponed until after Bibi leaves office.