February 6, 2017 - Trump and Israel III: Amona, Washington summit

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses the completion of the Amona evacuation, which occurred with relatively little violence, and its significance; the upcoming meeting between President Trump and PM Netanyahu and possible agenda items; and the bottom line regarding US-Israel relations in the Middle East context in the Trump era.

 

Q. The Amona outpost evacuation was completed last Thursday with relatively little violence. What’s the significance?

A. I recall, around 20 years ago, standing with a veteran resident of Ofra, the “Mayflower” of the West Bank settlement movement (the movement’s own self-aggrandizing and historically distorted term), and looking at a neighboring hillside where temporary dwellings were going up. “That’s Amona,” the settler said. “My son is one of the founders.” The settler was obviously very proud of this “unauthorized” satellite outpost of Ofra and his family’s role in its founding. From that standpoint, the evacuation and dismantling of Amona can only be considered a blow to the religious-ideological settler movement in the West Bank.

A second significant positive outcome of the evacuation was the demonstration by the Israel Police and the gendarmerie-style Border Patrol that they can do the job of evacuating a settlement with minimal resort to violence, even when confronting fanatic, cursing, spitting and rock-throwing settlers and their supporters. The rule of law was upheld. The High Court of Justice as the ultimate expression of the rule of law--it ordered the evacuation because Amona was built on private Palestinian land--was upheld, albeit after years of delay.

Here the contrast with the previous Amona evacuation was startling. In 2006 a handful of structures condemned by the High Court in response to an earlier, different petition were removed. That police operation featured a very violent response to settler provocations, thereby muddying the waters of the rule of law and staining the record of the government of the day under Ehud Olmert.

A third interesting feature of the Amona withdrawal was the general public’s lack of empathy for the settlers. The evacuation was broadcast live on all three major news channels. After a few hours, ratings dropped off radically. Most Israelis don’t know where Amona is. The 1,000 or so “hill youth” and other extremists who came to reinforce the settler protest were relatively easily controllable. Only one policeman asked to be relieved of his duties due to the harsh and angry language he was subjected to by the settlers. When a handful of demonstrators (most not from Amona) became violent in “defending” the outpost’s synagogue toward the end of the evacuation and policemen had to respond with force, the public did not protest the use of force or the desecration of a synagogue. Twelve of Amona’s 42 settler families left without a struggle and did not participate in protests against the evacuation.

As his meeting with President Trump approaches in mid-February, Prime Minister Netanyahu needed this display of law and order to demonstrate that he is fully in control of the situation in the West Bank, come what may in the new administration’s Middle East policy and his discussion of it with Trump. On the other hand, the Amona evacuation presented the new US administration with a graphic illustration of the complex and problematic nature of the entire West Bank settlement enterprise.

 

Q. Sounds almost too good to be true.

A. Yes, there is another side to all of this, and it is ugly.

For one, by way of compensating the settlers for destroying Amona, the Netanyahu government has in recent weeks announced construction of over 5,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Netanyahu has also promised the Amona evacuees a new settlement of their own--the first totally “new” location in the West Bank in years (as opposed to settlement expansions and “illegal” outposts, some of which have been legalized under dubious means). So the ultimate cost/benefit calculation--42 dwellings removed, thousands built--is awful.

Further, Netanyahu continues to sponsor a second measure of compensation for Amona: a Knesset bill for “regularization”, meaning legalization, of a host of settlements and outposts built on private Palestinian land. If the prime minister continues to stand behind it, the bill will pass, probably this week, and Israel will have taken a first significant legal step toward some form of annexation of the West Bank.

Third, the forces that relatively gently removed the settlers last week are the same Israel Police and Border Patrol who in recent weeks used a great deal more violence in destroying illegally-built dwellings in the Arab village of Qalansuwa in central Israel and the “unauthorized” Bedouin village of Um al-Hiran in the Negev. Where were the more humane police tactics then? Note, too, that illegal Arab and Bedouin construction in Israel often reflects the authorities’ refusal to allow Arab municipalities room for expansion and licenses for construction, and that Um al-Hiran was bulldozed to provide land for a new Jewish community to be built in its stead and to be named--how ironic--Hiran. One apparent reason for the timing of these demolitions of Arab homes was to show the Amona settlers that the law regarding illegal residences was being applied “evenly”.

Finally, the government spent tens of millions of dollars to remove a handful of ideologically extremist squatters who claim to be the lords of the land and who were treated with kid gloves. The need for 3,000 police personnel to remove a few dozen dwellings from a West Bank hilltop and the drama involved raise yet again, for a second time since the Gaza withdrawal of 2005, the question of whether from the standpoint of politics, logistics and national unity it will be possible to forcibly evacuate tens of thousands of settlers in the event of a two-state solution that requires the removal of settlements. The real objective of the Amona settler protest is to make this point. Yet any two-state arrangements that allow for leaving settlers in place in the West Bank heartland, in the middle of a Palestinian state, are a recipe for the shedding of blood between Jews and Arabs to an extent that would endanger the viability of the deal.

 

Q. You noted that next week PM Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Trump. Do you assess that settlements will be on the agenda?

A. Judging from Trump’s tweet to the effect that the Israeli announcement of thousands of new settlement construction starts “may not help” the cause of Middle East peace, the scene is indeed set for a Trump-Netanyahu discussion of settlements and the renewal of the peace process. Conceivably it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who impressed upon Trump the danger posed by a radical uptick in settlement-construction (as well as the danger of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem) when the two met briefly last week. That, of course, might just mean that Trump responds to the last person who whispered in his ear, in which case Netanyahu will seek to neutralize Trump’s mild admonishment. Last week Netanyahu sent the head of the Mossad and the acting national security adviser to talk to senior administration officials about the Palestinian issue (as well as Iran and Syria) and presumably to lay the groundwork for his talk with Trump.

Lest we forget, Trump is sending his son-in-law Jared Kushner to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He’s also sending a US ambassador who favors settlements. Netanyahu presumably has now been put on notice that he has to at least pay lip service to the settlements-two-state link. Here we recall that Netanyahu confronts heavy pressures at home from his own right wing to expand settlements, legalize land-grabs and even begin annexing parts of the West Bank and that he also fears imminent indictment on fraud charges. He will presumably play for time with Trump until all this gets sorted out. Meanwhile he is assiduously seeking favor by borrowing from the new president’s vocabulary: Israeli media criticism of Netanyahu’s “wall” affront to Mexico and news about impending corruption indictments are now labeled by Netanyahu “fake news”.

Before seeing Trump, Netanyahu travels to London early this week to meet with Prime Minister Theresa May. The meeting will take place now because Netanyahu angrily cancelled an earlier get-acquainted conversation with May a month ago after the UK voted for UN Security Council Resolution 2334 that condemns the settlements. Presumably Netanyahu will ask May, who just met with Trump and also appears anxious to establish a good relationship with him, for a tutorial regarding the American president with particular reference to the Middle East.

 

Q. What else is likely to be on the summit agenda?

A. Definitely Iran and definitely Syria. Netanyahu and Trump speak the same language when it comes to getting tough with Iran over both the nuclear deal and provocations like missile tests. Netanyahu already declared, on January 30, that he plans to raise the resumption of sanctions against Iran when he meets with Trump. Netanyahu added that “Iranian aggression will not go unanswered”--a perfect segue to a discussion of the administration’s announcement that it has put Iran “on notice”. But Netanyahu will also need to seek vital clarifications regarding the extent that any sort of US-Iran confrontation could deteriorate militarily, how this might affect Israel and how the US and Israel would coordinate at the operational level. For example, how will the US act if Iran, having suffered a punitive US strike against one of its navy ships off the coast of Yemen, responds by launching missiles against Israel?

Similarly, regarding Syria--particularly southern Syria near Israel’s Golan border--Netanyahu will want to learn Trump’s intentions. Is the new administration serious about creating a “safe zone” for refugees in southern Syria? How might this affect both Israel and Jordan, Israel’s strategic partner vis-a-vis Syria? How might Trump’s aspirations to “eliminate ISIS” affect Israel? What form will US-Russian cooperation in Syria take and how could this affect already-existing Israeli-Russian cooperation in the air over the Damascus area?

Netanyahu can impress upon Trump his success thus far in keeping Israel out of the Syria fray. But he will also likely make the Israeli case for Trump to leverage US involvement in Syria and a US dialogue with Russia’s Putin to push Iran and its proxies and forces out of Syria--at a minimum, far from the Syria-Israel border. Netanyahu will also almost certainly make the Israeli case for gaining international acceptance of its possession since 1967 of the Golan Heights. Here he would hope to persuade Trump to take advantage of Syria’s chaos, its ongoing fragmentation and its occupation by a host of external forces--Russia, Iran, Turkey, Lebanese Hezbollah--and to include recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan in his talking points with Putin.

 

Q. So what at this point in time is the bottom line regarding US-Israel relations in the Middle East context in the Trump era?

A. Not necessarily smooth sailing for Netanyahu, despite his aping of Trump’s rhetoric and his sense that the two share an agenda regarding the region. Trump owes Netanyahu and his American Jewish supporters very little politically. Trump is unpredictable. Trump may well be prepared to wheel and deal with Putin regarding US and Russian Middle East interests in a way not necessarily acceptable to Netanyahu. Trump, merely by tweeting something, could conceivably start a mini-war or even a war that could affect and even involve Israel.

Hopefully this reality is beginning to dawn on Netanyahu.

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