Is President Donald Trump getting tougher on Israel? If you read the Washington Post, you might think so:
A statement issued by press secretary Sean Spicer said that although the administration does not believe settlements are “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 American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” Spicer’s statement said, a reference to President Trump’s insistence that a return to the Middle East negotiating table is a goal he hopes to achieve.
While the statement carefully parsed it words, it marked a step away from what some Trump officials — and the president’s designated new ambassador to Israel — have said in favor of settlements. Trump’s first foreign call as president was to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he has been sharply critical of former president Barack Obama, whom he characterized as weak on Israel.
There were lots of ways in which the Obama years weren’t good for Bibi, but the hatred of settlements is Washington was politically useful for him. Bibi doesn’t want to cave to the most eager settlers who want government permission, subsidies, and protection to form outposts all over the West Bank. This is for several reasons. For one, those settlements still aren’t popular among many Israelis. For another, Bibi knows they cause him headaches abroad and that many in the Israeli security establishment think they’re misguided.
Over the past eight years what Netanyahu has done when he wants to throw the settlers a bone is announce big construction projects in the large settlement blocs that everyone already expects Israel to get in a final two-state settlements. The Europeans preen, the Arab world squeals, Russia and China release boilerplate condemnations, and, of course, the U.S. sternly warns Israel that this is not, in Washington’s view, productive. Bibi goes back to the settlers and says, “Look, I’m trying, but there’s only so much I can do without risking confrontation with the White House.” In Israel, this has fed a lot of resentment toward DC over the years—even leftwing Israelis don’t like the idea that Washington dictates their policies. But it’s helpful to a politician like Bibi who straddles, in a way no one else in the country does—or can—several political movements. He doesn’t have to push too hard for the security-minded and cautious center, and he also has a good excuse for restraining the settlers.
When Trump won and announced that he wanted David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel, that actually made Bibi’s job harder in some ways. Bibi’s happy to have a stronger ally on Iran and not to have to worry about the White House the next time he has to crack down in Gaza. But on settlements, not having the excuse of American pressure is a problem.
It’s difficult to know what’s going on inside the White House or the State Department, and as the New York Times points out, the settlements press release came shortly after Trump met with Jordan’s King Abdullah (who, of course, strenuously opposes all construction). But we wouldn’t be surprised if the White House’s about-face was calculated to give Netanyahu some breathing room until he and Trump have a chance to sit down in Washington next month. As last week’s pushback from Israeli intelligence on reports that the U.S. would move its embassy to Jerusalem reminds us, diplomacy and foreign affairs aren’t always as straightforward on the inside as they look to outsiders. The White House’s settlements statement may be a sign not of a volatile president, but of a foreign policy that is becoming more mature and nuanced.
Meanwhile, if you need more evidence that Trump in fact wants a closer relationship with Israel than his predecessor had, the White House announced on Thursday night that it only opposes the construction of new settlement blocs—not construction of additional units within large existing settlements. It’s a reversion to the policy of President George W. Bush and a big win for Israel’s center-right government.