History in the Making: Trump and Netanyahu Square Off

The Dome of the Rock and East Jerusalem. Pixabay/Public domain

The U.S.-Israeli future remains unclear.

The Trump administration’s recent statement on Israeli settlement construction led to mass confusion among the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The bulk of the coverage described it as a major rebuke of Israel that even indicated President Donald Trump intended to deal with Israel no differently than Barack Obama, at least when it came to Israeli building beyond the Green Line (also known as the 1949 armistice demarcation line). However, the widespread reports not only misread the administration’s developing position, but failed to fully grasp the positions of previous presidents on the settlement issue. Those reports also failed to take into account the current political contexts in Washington, DC and Jerusalem. As a result, the bulk of the analysis missed the far greater story and drew conclusions that reflected the opposite of reality.

The differences in interpretation are based on this full text of the White House statement:

The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. 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. As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. 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.

For many in news media, it was off to the races. The article that started the ball rolling came from Michael Wilner, Washington bureau chief and White House correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. Wilner published a report under the headline, “Trump warns Israel: Stop announcing new settlements.” He opened by writing, “The White House warned Israel on Thursday to cease settlement announcements that are ‘unilateral’ and ‘undermining’ of President Donald Trump’s effort to forge Middle East peace.”

The New York Times took it even further with the front-page headline “Trump Embraces Pillars of Obama’s Foreign Policy.” The authors led off, “President Trump, after promising a radical break with the foreign policy of Barack Obama, is embracing some key pillars of the former administration’s strategy, including warning Israel to curb settlement construction.” Their story noted that Trump’s “reversals were particularly stark” and that he was “in effect telling Mr. Netanyahu to wait” until the two leaders meet in Washington on February 15.

It’s rare to find such a gulf in the interpretation of foreign policy on a matter so frequently scrutinized by international media. Contrary to the bulk of what has been written, the real story here is that the United States doesn’t consider Israeli settlements to be an obstacle to peace. As long as Israel doesn’t establish new settlements or expand the borders of those that already exist, it remains free to build beyond the 1967 lines.

Several elements of the statement require a more careful analysis. The first is the fact that the United States doesn’t “believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace” is new and should constitute a story by itself. Before Barack Obama, the standard U.S. line regarding settlements was that they constituted an “obstacle” to peace and needed to stop. But when Obama came into office, he viewed Israeli settlements not as one of many issues but as “the principal obstacle to progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace,” according to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Yet Obama went several steps further. He publicly questioned Israel’s—but not the Palestinians'—desire to make peace and began calling Israeli settlements “illegitimate” rather than an “obstacle.” In the last weeks of his presidency, he allowed a UN Security Council resolution to pass that says Jews living in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem are now illegal outlaws and that building and restoring homes or synagogues destroyed under Jordanian occupation between 1948–67 is forbidden. The resolution he approved was so groundbreaking that it even allowed for Palestinians to claim land inside of pre-1967 Israel. That makes for quite a difference in how the Trump and Obama administrations view Israeli settlements and their impact on the peace process.