It was not long in coming – President Trump has signaled Prime Minister Netanyahu to back off on building new settlements or expanding any existing settlements ‘beyond their current borders’. In fact, Israel’s leader actually triggered the White House response. What did Bibi expect after he announced that Israel would build a brand-new settlement to compensate for the evacuation of the illegal settlement of Amona? For good measure Netanyahu also tacked on 5,500 new housing units to existing settlements on the West Bank! This was the official Trump statement:
“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.”
Although the White House sugar-coated its reaction the meaning was clear. It has poured cold water on Israel’s Right wing that believed that President Trump would acquiesce in a new settlement spree in Judea/Samaria. Since January 20th, the Right wingers lead by Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett had been taunting the Prime Minister with ‘What are we waiting for, Trump will back us’. Now they have the White House answer. But Bibi should have known better and not folded under the Right wing pressure. Even Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a super hawk, advised him to delay any settlement decisions until after the PM meets Trump and tests the waters on Feb.15th. But Bibi went against his own best judgment in order to placate his Likud power base.
As for the outcome, it is a safe bet Bibi will have to call off the new settlement, unless he wants to run afoul of Trump. In fact, no new settlement has gone up for over twenty years. The construction has been restricted to existing settlements. Now the government will have to make sure that each and every new building is built within the ‘current borders’ of the existing settlements.
Another hot topic will be the moving of the American embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as promised by Trump during the presidential campaign. The President has already signaled this is not a top priority at present, and with good reason. Anyone who has ever picked up a Bible, Old or New Testament, has not a shadow of doubt that Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people going back over three thousand years. But if Jerusalem is a flash-point between Israel and the Palestinians, is this the time to transfer it? Palestinian and Arab leaders have been warning such, an American step would spark an anti-American explosion throughout the Middle East and the entire Muslim world.
In Washington, Jordan’s King Abdullah pleaded against it. Abdullah now rules over a Palestinian majority in Jordan and would be hard pressed to quell Palestinian rioting that might even topple him from his throne. American blood might also be spilled. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has also warned of violence on the West Bank and by some 200,000 Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, the site of the Al Aksa mosque.
Then again, Trump has appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner as his personal envoy to try and kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It stands to reason the President will lean on Bibi to forget about settlement building that would torpedo Kushner’s mission even before he boards a plane to the Middle East. If so, Bibi may have to do some fast talking in the White House. Moreover, a wave of violence over the Jerusalem issue could also impact several other security issues that will be high on Bibi’s check-list in the White House:
- Iran: it remains the gravest security threat to Israel. Trump has already slapped some minor sanctions on Tehran for its recent ballistic missile test which is not covered by the nuclear accord of 2015 but may violate previous UN Security Council resolutions. The new US President has signaled Tehran that he is keeping a sharp eye for any nuclear weapons violations. If any are spotted, the US leader will not only speak but also act. In this case, ballistic missiles can be armed with nuclear warheads. On this issue Bibi and Trump will see eye to eye. As for the controversial nuclear deal that will supposedly bar the Ayatollahs from developing nuclear weapons for another eight and a half years, nothing can really be done about it right now, although Trump vowed to ‘rip it up’ during the election campaign. If the US annulled it the chances are nil that Washington could get the other powers to re-impose the tough sanctions that forced Tehran to even negotiate the agreement. Therefore, the inspection regime would collapse while Iran would break out for A-bombs and the bottom line would probably be a major war. So, the best Israel can hope for is enforcing a strict monitoring of Iran’s nuclear sites.
- Syria: Israel is concerned about its northern border with Syria in the aftermath of the civil war. In light of Obama’s acquiescence, Russia intervened militarily to save the regime of President Bashar Assad. Iranian and Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have also been fighting for Assad and have tried to establish a military presence along Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights. The IDF has prevented this mainly by air power, which has destroyed shipments of sophisticated weapons being transported from Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Netanyahu has declared that Israel will not permit Iran to establish a new front against Israel on the Golan Heights – as it did with Palestinian terrorists in Gaza. Now that Russia is the main power broker in Syria, Netanyahu will want to make sure Trump has his back.
Will settlement building and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem serve this regional interest?
There is also a bigger regional picture in light of Obama’s nuclear deal that was opposed not only by Israel but also the Sunni Arab states that also feel threatened by Iran’s ascendancy. The result has been Israel’s forging of an informal security alliance with Egypt and Jordan, with which it has signed treaties, but also a shadow understanding with Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States. However Arab leaders have made clear it is necessary for Israel to make progress on the Palestinian track before they can upgrade this cooperation against the common enemy of Iran. Arab leaders also have their ‘Arab street’ to worry about. This is also a strategic consideration the Israeli government should take into account. Will settlement building and moving the American embassy to Jerusalem serve this regional interest? Obviously, it will not.
In the domestic arena, the police investigations of the PM, all three of them, are far from over. Netanyahu is being investigated for orchestrating ‘gifts’ estimated to be over $150,000 in expensive cigars, champagne and the like, as well as trying to ‘fix’ a deal with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper that would guarantee him favorable coverage. Last but not least is that Bibi may have employed his private lawyer to reap the huge fee for negotiating the purchase of three submarines from a German company.
Although the revelations are highly questionable and stink, it remains to be seen if the Attorney General will prosecute the PM. Meanwhile, Bibi professes his innocence contending there is nothing wrong with accepting gifts from longtime friends and nothing came out of the secret negotiation he had with newspaper owner Noni Moses. On the contrary, Netanyahu accuses the media of launching a ‘Bolshevik style smear campaign in order bring down my government!’ Sounds like Donald Trump? And how – Bibi is trying to out-Trump Trump. The jury is still out and everything will depend on the decision of whether to prosecute.
Knesset member Zahava Gallon of Meretz has now accused Bibi of announcing the controversial settlement plans in order to draw attention from the police investigations. The Opposition smells blood and has called on Bibi to resign while the Right wing stands firmly behind the PM. In the Opposition, Yair Lapid, who has overtaken Netanyahu in the polls as leader of the Yesh Atid party, has stayed surprisingly mum – Lapid is also a chum of tycoon Arnon Milchan who lavished those ‘gifts’ on Bibi. But Lapid categorically denied that he ever accepted gifts from anyone let alone Milchan. There is no evidence to the contrary. Isaac Herzog of Labor, the official Opposition Leader in the Knesset, has also called on Bibi to resign but Herzog has been hospitalized and later released after suffering a mild stroke. It remains to be seen how this will affect his political career and his leadership of Labor- Zionist Union.
Actually, it is former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, who has aroused a lot of speculation that he may be considering a comeback. Barak is lambasting Bibi calling him a disaster for Israel. Whether he will actually throw his hat into the ring remains to be seen. There is no doubt Barak is a serious political heavyweight, but he has again denied taking any decision about rejoining the fray. Barak portrays himself as a very concerned citizen with the right to speak his mind; the media is paying attention to every word he says.
It may be that the former prime minister, who tried hard to make peace with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000, is preparing the groundwork for a wave of popular demand by Labor voters to draft him as party leader to run against Bibi. By the way, Barak was Bibi’s renowned commander in the vaunted Sayeret Matkal Special Forces unit with all that implies – it seems to spook Netanyahu. Opinion polls testing whether Barak could give Bibi a run for the money may be the deciding factor. That is if Bibi survives those pesky police investigations.