Trump Settles in On Settlements

By Elliott Abrams

Israel Hayom

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 activity."

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 keep it.

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 settlement expansion.

Sixth, apparently Netanyahu agreed not to permit new "outposts" to be built -- small groups of houses erected without government permission.

And finally, there will be no annexation of land in Judea and Samaria.

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, government-provided mortgage).

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 governments.

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.