President Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt is making his first trip to Israel this week as the president’s representative. Overall, he is off to a good start. Reports from the meetings have been promising. The decision to invite President Abbas to Washington to meet with President Trump is a good one. And Greenblatt’s social media feed has shown him meeting with Palestinian youth leaders and tech entrepreneurs. Overall, it seems that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be an area where Trump pursues a relatively conventional policy that does not break too radically from his predecessors.
And like his predecessors, issue number one on the agenda seems to be the same issue that was on the agenda at the end of the Obama administration – settlements. Greenblatt and his team will reportedly attempt to negotiate an understanding with Prime Minister Netanyahu on what Israeli settlement construction the United States will consent to, versus settlement construction that must stop or will be opposed by the Trump administration.
This seems like a perfectly reasonable first step and the rationale is straightforward. Israelis should be able to build on territory that by all accounts is likely to end up as part of Israel in any final agreement. And if the United States and Israel could just get this issue off the table, it can stop being a distraction, both improving the U.S.-Israel relationship and allowing for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to move forward. Unfortunately, an agreement on settlements is almost certainly unworkable and will likely lead the Trump administration down the same dangerous path that previous negotiators took.
First, Netanyahu’s flexibility in being able to agree to where he can build and not build will be highly circumscribed by a far right coalition government. It seems unlikely that his coalition partners will be content to simply build west of the barrier in the major developed blocs. Instead, Netanyahu will likely take an expansive view and may even try to include settlements such as Kiryat Arba, Ofra, and Beit El, as part of his definition of the “blocs.” By all realistic assessments these areas would be outside any agreement on borders with the Palestinians.
Indeed, Netanyahu was reportedly planning on making the case to Greenblatt that building a new settlement deep inside the West Bank near Shilo – an area certain to go to the Palestinians in any final agreement – would not be “new.” Instead it would only be a “replacement” for the recently evacuated illegal outpost of Amona. Netanyahu is making this highly tenuous case to placate his base. It is indicative of the problem Netanyahu and Trump will face. Any construction limitations that may work for Netanyahu’s coalition will involve support for settlement construction that will make a two-state solution significantly harder.
Beyond the difficulty of realistically getting to an agreement is the problem that once you enter the highly complex world of defining good and bad settlements, it becomes an almost never ending complicated rabbit hole. It will stop all discussions on other issues and drain months of time and effort. There were previous attempts in the Bush Administration to come to an understanding between the United States and Israel on the definition of blocs, which failed because the United States and Israel could not come to agreement on precise definitions of growth and boundaries. Early in the Obama administration, Senator Mitchell spent months negotiating a highly complex settlement freeze that still did not fully satisfy Palestinian demands. And during the efforts led by Secretary Kerry, we thought we had an implicit commitment from the Israelis for restraint only to see large numbers of tenders for new construction and advancement of planning for various stages.
Moreover, simply not building “new” settlements, which is how President Trump originally defined his limitation, is not that meaningful. The most contested territory – Ariel, Har Homa, Kedumim – is precisely the territory on the very edge of the major blocs. 1,000 new Israeli units in highly contested territory is much more damaging to the negotiations than a small number of outlier units deep in the West Bank that everyone knows will have to be evacuated in a final agreement. But at least based on the president’s formulation, this type of settlement construction would be fair game.
Even settlement construction deep in the West Bank may be supported by the United States as long as it is not a new settlement. But if you have a settlement that already has 5,000 people living in it and that most believe will have to be evacuated as part of an agreement, under this plan you could potentially add thousands of more settlers. The political challenge in the end will not be how much territory Israel will cede to a new a Palestinian state, but how many settlers will need to be evacuated. The formulation developed by the president does not address that problem.
Even if Greenblatt can engineer an agreement to stop construction in new areas, it will not take effect immediately. Under Israeli law, stopping construction that has already started in the West Bank would require a military order, as it did in 2010 when Israel implemented a construction freeze. This would likely require high-level cabinet approval, which again seems nearly impossible with Netanyahu’s current coalition. So any agreement would only stop planning and tenders outside of specified areas, which would stop the Israeli bureaucracy from advancing forward on the multi-step process necessary to approve new settlements but would not stop ongoing construction.
Jerusalem will also be a complicating factor, as Israel has taken a broad view of the definition of Jerusalem and incorporated many outlying neighborhoods into the municipality of Jerusalem. Israelis do not consider these neighborhoods part of the blocs and they are unlikely in Netanyahu’s proposal to be part of the discussions. But some of the most controversial flash points are in these outlying neighborhoods. For example, potential construction in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos could be nearly fatal to the two-state solution by completely encircling the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if the United States and Israel were able to overcome all of these hurdles and somehow negotiate an agreement on settlement construction, the Palestinians would never accept it and would not even view it as a positive step. The Palestinians cannot be seen as negotiating over which settlements are alright to build in, as this would be viewed by their public as legitimizing Israeli settlement activity – even if the negotiations are about territory that reasonable observers recognize will remain part of Israel. The only way they might be able to accept such a negotiation is if it was framed as a negotiation on borders, but that would be impossible for Netanyahu to sell to his coalition, many of whom oppose a two-state solution.
Without some kind of public acknowledgement or support from the Palestinians, the notion that this step could over time lead to the Arab states engaging more publicly with Israel is also highly suspect. They will not make any public gesture without some political cover from the Palestinians, and so using an agreement on settlements to somehow help launch a broader regional negotiation also seems unlikely.
Instead of diving down this rabbit hole, the Trump administration should consider a much simpler proposal consistent with the one put forward by the Commanders for Israel’s Security. Israel should stop all construction and settlement activity outside the barrier, which remains a clear and objective metric even if an imperfect one. And it should couple this step with actions to allow for much greater economic development in small parts of Area C, which could have a disproportionately positive effect on the Palestinian economy and relieve the pressure on many Palestinians in Area C who fear that their homes will be demolished.
In exchange, the Trump administration should offer that while it will not support or sign off on all Israeli settlement activity within the barrier, it will only publicly criticize activities in highly sensitive areas. And it should lay out for the Israeli government what those sensitive areas would be including Givat Hamatos, Ariel, Kedumim, E1, and a select number of highly sensitive locations inside the West Bank.
This approach to settlements would put a break on the worst activities that endanger the two-state solution while limiting potential confrontations between Israel and the United States. It is also relatively simple and will not suck the American negotiating team into the settlements vortex for the next six to twelve months. And while it will not draw the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, it will arrest the current negative slide and improve the overall environment. Unfortunately, it is not clear that the current Israeli coalition would accept this proposal. But President Trump’s team should test that proposition, as anything short of this bare bones proposal is unlikely to make a meaningful difference in curbing settlement activity that threatens the two-state solution.