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.

But the committee may not be able to smooth out friction within Netanyahu’s coalition. After eight years of a relative slowdown in construction within existing settlements, with the blame pinned firmly on the need not to run afoul of the Obama administration, and no new settlements built since 2004, much of Likud and all of Bayit Yehudi have made it amply clear they won’t take no for an answer.

Or, as a close associate of Bennett explained this week, no U.S. president will ever see eye-to-eye with him on the settlements, so why would he change his position? Bennett is “ignoring the distractions and applying his plan,” the source said.

Plus, the entire settlement of Amona was demolished earlier this year after the Supreme Court determined it was built on private Palestinian land, and no work has started on the replacement settlement the government promised to build for its residents on state land. Though Netanyahu reaffirmed his promise in recent weeks, his office also said he is waiting for the coordination mechanism to start its work. Sources in Bennett’s office argued that the new Amona shouldn’t need to be coordinated, because it’s not a new settlement; it’s reconstructed one that already existed. Meanwhile, Amona residents launched a hunger strike to urge the government to hurry up and build their new towns.

Which brings us to last week.

Netanyahu’s pushback against the pressure to build and annex has been relatively quiet, so as not to alienate his base. Behind closed doors, he’s been telling his party’s lawmakers and members of his cabinet that Trump is friendly to Israel, but we shouldn’t be too hasty and risk spoiling a good thing.

However, Lieberman, who has to sign off on settlement-related decisions, decided that he’d had enough and decided to be very blunt about it, as is his wont.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, of Bennett and Shaked’s party, circulated a draft of a government resolution to start planning and building Amona II, and Bennett asked Netanyahu why things aren’t moving at the cabinet meeting on Sunday, March 5, mentioning the hunger strike.

Lieberman chimed in: “Where are they hunger-striking? I need to lose weight. I’ll join them.”

According to the Army Radio report on the Defense Minister’s quip, Netanyahu told Lieberman that it is not a laughing matter.

The next day, Lieberman went from tasteless humor to a more serious warning, speaking to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Referring to a Likud backbencher gone rogue, who called in a TV interview to annex the entire West Bank but not give Palestinians the right to vote, and was met by condemnations from across most of the political spectrum, Lieberman said he was getting phone calls from around the world asking him to clarify the matter.

“We need to separate from the Palestinians and not to integrate them,” Lieberman said. “Applying Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria means 2,700,000 Palestinians, and I’m not even talking about international law, the political ramifications and the international community’s reaction to the idea that we wouldn’t give them the right to vote. . . . This attitude is simply wrong, in my opinion, and the coalition has to make it very clear that we don’t plan to apply Israeli sovereignty at the moment.”

The Americans would not stand for it, he added, saying the clear message from the Trump administration that “annexation of all of Judea and Samaria means an immediate crisis with the new government, so whoever wants a crisis with the new American government . . . should do it. I call for MKs to be responsible.”

Shaked, speaking to Army Radio Monday evening, shrugged Lieberman off: “I’m not familiar with messages like these.

“We aren’t a banana republic. . . . We are an independent and sovereign country,” she stated. “The U.S. government favors Israel and respects the prime minister, and with work, that government will back Israel and the government’s policy. We have a right-wing government, and we have to build in Judea and Samaria and Area C. . . . Certainly all [ministers] support annexing Ma’ale Adumim and Gush Etzion [a settlement bloc on the other side of Jerusalem]. There was a freeze for eight years, and this is the time to break it.”

Shaked and Lieberman highlight how complicated Israeli politics can be. Both are security hawks in a relatively homogeneous right-wing coalition, but Lieberman has said he’d be willing to give up his home in a settlement if there’s a peace treaty, while Shaked, who lives in Tel Aviv, is of the don’t-give-up-an-inch camp.

And then there’s Netanyahu, stuck in the middle and waiting to hear from the White House what “hold back on settlements for a bit” really means. Whether he’ll be pushed to come down on one side or another to save his political skin before hearing back from Trump and company remains to be seen.

Lahav Harkov, the Senior Parliamentary Reporter and Analyst for the Jerusalem Post is a frequent commentator on Israeli and international television and radio programs. She lectures for audiences around the world on Israeli politics. Follow her on Twitter @LahavHarkov.

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