Remember Henry’s Kissinger’s ‘constructive ambiguity’? We are now seeing President Trump’s version of it, possibly on the advice of his special emissary Jason Greenblatt, who recently visited the region to meet separately with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But how can Bibi’s decision to establish a new settlement, the first new one in 25 years, aid in a resumption of peace negotiations? (All the other construction of housing units was within the boundaries of existing settlements on the West Bank).
Reading between the lines, this is how it apparently works: The goal was to kick-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace contacts under the existing conditions.
- First: Netanyahu likely explained to Greenblatt how he must honor his promise to replace a new settlement for Amona, which he ordered to be evacuated in keeping with a recent High Court ruling (it was built on private Palestinian land on the West Bank). If not, it could trigger the break-up of his coalition government and an early election. This would delay the negotiations and the possible ‘deal’ that Trump says he wants.
- Second: Greenblatt probably explained this to Abbas, adding that Trump would view that new single settlement as a one-time thing and the President would very much appreciate it, if the Palestinian leader would go along with this approach that would enable a new round of peace talks.
Now peruse the White House statement immediately after the Israeli security cabinet’s decision to replace Amona, on the advice of Netanyahu:
Going forward, the Israeli government has made clear that Israel’s intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes President Trump’s concerns into consideration.
‘While the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace, we would note that the Israeli prime minister made his commitment to the Amona settlers prior to President Trump laying out his expectations and he has consistently indicated that he intended to move forward with his plan. Going forward, the Israeli government has made clear that Israel’s intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes President Trump’s concerns into consideration’.
Therefore, it has been demonstrated that while Israel has announced plans for building new housing units, these will likely be restricted for inside the settlement blocs adjacent to the old 1967 cease-fire line. At the time, former President George W. Bush wrote Arik Sharon that these settlement blocs should remain part of Israel in any future peace treaty in return for a land-swap with the Palestinians.
What happens now?
Bibi will have to sell this strategy to the far-Right settler camp that demands ‘unrestrained settlement activity’ here and now. After clearing it with Greenblatt, the Israeli PM informed the security cabinet of his decision to create the new settlement within what he called the ‘limitations’ requested/demanded by Trump.
While the Settlers’ Council immediately praised the decision on a new settlement, it also adopted a wait and see attitude. Obviously, the Right-wingers are surprised and deeply disappointed that Trump is now opposed to wide-scale settlement construction. They are calling on Bibi not to take no for an answer from the new US President. But for the time being, they are ready to follow Bibi’s lead and see where it takes the settlement issue. This was the official response of the Settler Movement in Judea & Samaria:
‘The real test will be the immediate resumption of planning activity, construction and development in all settlements and actions on the ground. We continue to stand on guard to see to it that Israel’s government implements these objectives’.
An indication where the pro-settlement Jewish Home party stands came from Cabinet Minister Uri Ariel. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Ariel chose to praise Bibi’s announcement for the new settlement, adding that it would eventually enable more settlement building in Judea & Samaria. Although it was a step in the right direction, the government could not stop at this decision.
Ariel is also convinced the Palestinians will again, as they have in the past, torpedo any real progress toward closing a peace treaty. He noted that two former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert had offered massive concessions to the Palestinians, including the partition of Jerusalem, but two successive Palestinian leaders, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas had walked away – to the dismay of the US brokers. Uri Ariel and most of the Right-wing leaders are convinced it will only be a matter of time before Trump gets the same picture. In light of this, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, the most vociferous cabinet minister, is giving Bibi some slack to work with Greenblatt, and therefore avoid taking the rap for sabotaging America’s current peace effort. On the Palestinian side, Abbas also realized this is the most sensible course to follow. Aside from the usual Palestinian criticism, Abbas has not issued any fiery ultimatums about never negotiating etc.
Livni: ‘historic opportunity for peace’?
The plot thickens: in a surprise development, Labor MK Tzipi Livni, from the Opposition, has met privately with Greenblatt. Livni, a former Foreign Minister has more negotiating hours with Mahmoud Abbas than any other Israeli leader, so Greenblatt was interested in getting her assessment of the situation and how best to proceed. Interviewed on Israel Radio, Livni declared:
‘There is now a historic opportunity to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians’!
Livni, a former Foreign Minister has more negotiating hours with Mahmoud Abbas than any other Israeli leader…
She was really fired up, adding that it was doubtful if the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships could make the necessary painful concessions ‘on-their-own’. Therefore, somewhere along the line, Trump himself would have to get personally involved between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders (more or less to bang their heads together). There was only one solution – the two-state model, one Jewish and one Palestinian. The issue was not of one settlement more or one less – the future of Israel was at stake.
Now Tzipi Livni is no ‘Smolun!’ – a Left wing bleeding heart, as Israeli Right-wingers are prone to call any Israeli who does not support the ‘Land of Israel’ in all of Judea & Samaria. Livni is a daughter of one of Herut’s honored ‘families’, whose parents played key roles in the Right-wing Herut movement that fought for Israel’s independence during the British mandate. Historically, Herut served as the vanguard for the ‘Land of Israel’ ideology in all of the West Bank. But she and other sons and daughters of Herut, most notably Dan Meridor, have come to realize that Israel cannot rule over two-and-a-half million Palestinians in the West Bank, and preserve its democratic values. So Livni came full circle and joined the Labor-Zionist Camp party that is now lead by Yitzhak Herzog, who actually brought her into the Left-wing party. Although she is highly regarded by many Israelis, including IsraCast, Livni lacks a power base. Her future remains uncertain, in that her abilities have come to the attention of even the powers-that-be at no less than the United Nations, which is reportedly considering her for a senior position. However, Livni will have to run the gauntlet of the automatic majority in the Arab camp that almost always votes against anything Israeli.
PS: I have made no comment to the weeks of squabbling between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Kahlon over the re-organizing of a different public broadcasting authority in Israel because this should be left to experts in abnormal psychiatry.