Netanyahu's Inner Circle Is Clashing over the Future of U.S. Policy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses reporters in 2016. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Department of State

Trump said “hold back on settlements,” but Netanyahu’s coalition is clashing over what that means.

President Donald Trump’s request of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in their joint press conference last month that he “hold back on settlements for a bit” has undergone Talmudic levels of parsing by everyone from seasoned diplomats to late-night hosts in Israel and the United States. The debate on what exactly “holding back” and “a bit” mean is creating tensions in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, where many are calling for annexation.

A poll last week indicated that 55 percent of Israelis think Trump will allow settlement construction, while the opposition, which ranges from centrist to far-left, is focused more on “hold back” than “a bit.” Meanwhile, the debate in the coalition came to a head when Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman said he “received a direct message—not an indirect message and not a hint—from the United States” that annexation talk could launch a crisis. Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, however, said that never happened, and anyway, the United States can’t tell Israel, a sovereign country, what to do.

When Trump was elected, Netanyahu was clearly pleased by the outcome after eight years of dealing with a U.S. president with whom he had butted heads many times. “You are a great friend of Israel . . . I look forward to working with you,” he said in a message to Trump posted online on November 9—but many to his right were euphoric, as though they received carte blanche from America to pursue their policy goals.

“The era of the Palestinian state is over,” declared Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and head of Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), the most right-wing party currently in the Knesset, and a part of Netanyahu’s coalition. The Knesset Land of Israel Caucus, a pro-settlement group of lawmakers including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party and others, said Trump’s election is an “historic opportunity,” calling for the government to accordingly “resume building . . . in every part of our land.”

Ahead of the Netanyahu-Trump meeting, Bennett had two things he wanted from Netanyahu: to renounce the two-state solution, and to annex Area C, the parts of the West Bank in which Israelis live.

Much has already been made of Trump and Netanyahu’s focus on regional, as opposed to bilateral, negotiations, and Trump saying, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and . . . I can live with either one.” Netanyahu and his right flank saw that part of the meeting as a success.

When it comes to settlements, one could easily say POTUS’s comment is a win for Netanyahu, because it gives him an answer for those on his right when they demand action, since he mostly tries to maintain the status quo on Palestinian-related issues. However, the over four hundred thousand people whom Trump’s statement most directly impacts were relatively unfazed by it, if one is to judge by the responses of their political representatives. Those people are, of course, the settlers, meaning Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria (the historic name for what is better known as the West Bank), who have no plans to “hold off on settlements,” or at least not to hold off on continuing putting pressure on Netanyahu to pursue a more assertive policy.

Now, Bennett and others to Netanyahu’s right are working hard to achieve their second goal, starting with Ma’ale Adumim, a city four miles outside of Jerusalem that’s over forty years old with a population of around forty thousand. The Land of Israel Caucus proposed a bill to annex Ma’ale Adumim in May of last year, concurrently commissioning a poll that found that 78 percent of Jewish Israelis (who make up three-fourths of Israeli citizens) support applying Israeli law to the city, and only one-third think Israel should wait to do so until an agreement is reached with the Palestinians.

The Ma’ale Adumim bill reared its head again after the U.S. election, with its authors Yoav Kisch of Likud and Bezalel Smotrich of Bayit Yehudi putting it on the Knesset’s docket and removing it again and again at Netanyahu’s request. First, the prime minister asked that they wait until after Trump’s inauguration. Then he asked that they wait until after he meets with Trump. In early March, Netanyahu requested another delay, and the MKs obliged, planning to resubmit it for ministerial review the week of March 12.

Don’t be surprised if Netanyahu comes up with a new benchmark to allow him to continue the delay tactics, since Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, is expected to come to Israel later this month to discuss settlement issues.

Greenblatt’s visit is part of Netanyahu and Trump’s decision to form a joint mechanism to coordinate on settlement issues; so far, the Israeli side of the team consists of Ron Dermer, ambassador to the United States, whose term Netanyahu asked his cabinet to extend for a fifth year last week. The settlement committee is meant to smooth out possible friction between the Trump administration and the Israeli government on an issue that was a sticking point between Netanyahu and former U.S. president Barack Obama.

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