Settles in On Settlements
By Elliott Abrams
April 5, 2017
Israeli settlement activity has been in the news this past
week because the Trump administration is steadily defining its policy. What has
emerged is a good policy: sensible, flexible and realistic. Which is to say,
it's a lot like former U.S. President George W. Bush's policy.
President Barack Obama's policy had made construction in
the settlements a sore point for eight full years. This was one reason among
many for the constant tension between the government of Israel and that of the
United States during all of Obama's term in office.
What are the terms of the agreement between the Israeli
government and the Trump administration? First, there is no written agreement,
and that's a good thing. There are understandings. That means there can be some
arguments, but no accusations that "you're violating what you signed."
Second, the Trump administration understands that Jerusalem
is Israel's capital and does not view construction there as "settlement
Third, Israel will not build any new settlements except the
one promised to the families evicted from the outpost of Amona, deemed illegal
by the Israeli Supreme Court and recently demolished. Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu persuaded the American administration that he had made that commitment
to the people of Amona last year, before the Trump presidency, and needed to
Fourth, new construction in settlements in Judea and
Samaria will be confined to existing communities, or if that's impossible, as
close to them as possible.
Fifth, there will be some restraint in the pace of
Sixth, apparently Netanyahu agreed not to permit new
"outposts" to be built -- small groups of houses erected without
And finally, there will be no annexation of land in Judea
This closely resembles the Bush-Sharon understandings of
2003 and 2004. The "deal" was no new settlements, no seizure of
additional land for settlements, construction in already built-up areas, and no
financial inducements to move to a settlement (e.g., a cheap,
The goals are the same: to limit the physical expansion of
settlements so that the Israeli footprint in Judea and Samaria does not become
larger and larger; to keep most population growth in the larger blocs that will
remain part of Israel in any final status agreement; and to prevent this issue
from occupying center stage and being a constant irritant to the two
This is smart. The alternative approach, that of the Obama
administration under George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Barack
Obama, was not. By treating all construction -- in Jerusalem, the major blocs,
and the smallest outlying settlements -- exactly the same, that Obama approach
created a huge Israeli consensus against U.S. policy.
The Trump approach is politically sensible: Most Israelis
do not think of construction in Jerusalem or the big settlements like Maaleh
Adumim to be anything like construction in some tiny settlement far beyond the
Israeli security barrier. So this deal should be sustainable.
There will no doubt be arguments, as noted, over some
questions. For example, is some new apartment house really as close to the
already built-up area as it can be? But we dealt with such matters in the Bush
years. The prime minister's office would call, we'd discuss what was planned,
and we would not allow these things to sour the terrific relationship between
the president and the prime minister, or between the two governments. That's the
way it should be, and that appears to be what Trump has in mind.