Could it really be that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just rejected a proposal for further settlement construction that he was promoting less than a year ago? That seems the case if information from the Israeli media last week is correct. According to reports, Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s adviser on international relations, asked Israel to agree to a partial settlement freeze in certain areas — while being permitted to pursue continued settlement construction in many others — during efforts to broker peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu reportedly said, “No.”
In the short time since his January inauguration, Trump’s approach to the Middle East appears to be charting a mainstream course. That’s true even when factoring in his ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, an outspoken supporter of the settlement movement whom the Senate confirmed last week. In line with his more recent even-handed approach, the president’s call for a limited settlement freeze fits right in.
Greenblatt reportedly asked Israel not to build in isolated areas of the West Bank, but gave a green light to additional construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and in the developed settlement blocs along the Green Line. That suggestion recognizes the distinction between land that most everyone agrees would become part of a future Palestinian state (where building would be frozen) and land that will eventually be annexed by Israel (where building would be permitted). As such, the new U.S. request pretty closely mirrors most of what Netanyahu has been saying that Israel wants on that aspect of a possible deal with the Palestinians.
But that approach is opposed by the pro-settler movement, including the Jewish Home party and many in Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. For them, there can be no compromise — anything less than the right to unlimited settlement construction is a loss that must be rejected. And since the politicians on the right hold the key to whether Netanyahu remains in power, he can no longer accept the deal he has been proposing all along. Such intransigence could create a problem, since one says no to Donald Trump at his peril.
One cause for Netanyahu’s rejection of the proposal appears to be his promise to build a new settlement for the former residents of Amona, which was evacuated earlier this year after the Israeli courts found it was built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land. But why do Amona evacuees need a new settlement? Why not give them homes in an old settlement? Or in Jerusalem? Or even within the Green Line, as the state granted to the evacuees from Gaza?
After eight years of difficulty with the Obama administration, the Israeli government thought it got a U.S. president of its dreams when Trump was elected. Now that reality has set in, it is time for Netanyahu to show he can get along with the new administration, and do what needs to be done to get to “yes.”