Netanyahu calls Trump’s bluff on settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently wants to convince us that he is not interested in reaching a peace deal, but in maintaining power by catering to his radical right flank and the settler movement.

At a June 6 ceremony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, Netanyahu promised an audience of settlers that “no one will be uprooted from their home. … I’m doing whatever is needed to protect the Jewish settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria. … We are building and planning in all parts of Judea and Samaria.”

During a White House press conference in February, while expressing his interest in helping make the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, President Donald Trump appealed to Netanyahu: “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he said. Trump’s ask clearly didn’t persuade Netanyahu against giving in to the settlers’ demands for expansion. Netanyahu’s promise to the settlers not only contradicts his stated support for a two-state solution, but also jeopardizes the prospects of future Israeli-Palestinian peace.

New Peace Now data shows that Netanyahu makes good on his promises to the settlers. A 34 percent increase in West Bank settlement construction starts in 2016 underscores that Netanyahu’s claims of restraint are a farce. Back in March, Netanyahu’s government adopted a new settlement policy “limiting” construction to areas within or adjacent to “built-up areas” of existing settlements. The policy itself is highly problematic, given that it allows for unrestricted construction in so-called “settlement blocs” — creating facts on the ground in what will ultimately be the most contentious areas when the time comes to negotiate borders.

But Netanyahu doesn’t seem keen on honoring “limitations” on settlement expansion. In his June 6 speech to the settlers, he said that his government is building “from inside out,” meaning from the built-up “footprint” in settlements toward the unbuilt vicinity. Now, Netanyahu’s government reportedly intends to advance 2,500 housing units, of which 98 percent are east of the security barrier and 75 percent are located deep within the West Bank.

Netanyahu boasted during the June 6 ceremony that he has “the honor, after decades, to be the first prime minister to build a new settlement in Judea and Samaria.” He was referring to the establishment on March 30 of Amihai — the first new official settlement since 1992 — to compensate the Amona settlers who were forcibly evacuated from their illegal outpost back in February. Amona, built on privately-owned Palestinian land and illegal under Israeli law, was home to only 40 families.

Amihai has been approved for 102 housing units. Netanyahu made every effort to prevent the Amona settlers from facing punishment for breaking Israeli law, petitioning the High Court to delay Amona’s evacuation time and again. Now with Amihai, Netanyahu is generously rewarding the settlers’ aggression.

U.S. policy, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has long maintained that settlements are an obstacle to peace. Israel’s own security establishment has repeatedly debunked the myth that the settlements make Israel more secure. Settlement expansion fractures the contiguity of a future Palestinian state and puts Israel’s commitment to peace in question. The settlements also siphon off a disproportionate amount of resources and tax-payer money to serve a small, radical Israeli special-interest group.

Settlement expansion must not be dismissed. While Trump’s team prepares for peace talks, Netanyahu is helping Israeli settlers create facts on the ground that are rapidly narrowing the window for a two-state negotiated agreement. Whether or not you believe Trump is capable of achieving his coveted “ultimate deal,” it is his responsibility to call out Netanyahu’s blatant attempts to undermine it.

If he hopes to give peace talks a fighting chance, Trump must pressure Netanyahu to enforce an immediate settlement freeze, both inside and outside existing settlements, both in distant settlements and in the so-called “settlement blocs.” Netanyahu is not entirely immune to U.S. pressure. Even President Barack Obama, with an opposing Congress that Netanyahu often played to his advantage, was able to pressure him into a 10-month settlement “moratorium” in 2009. If this White House and Congress can set aside partisan struggles and commit to unified meaningful action, might the United States finally be able to turn the tide of settlement expansion?

Stephanie Breitsman is a staff member of Americans for Peace Now.

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