April 3, 2017 - Deceptive settlement restrictions to buy time with Trump, while the US military creeps back into the Arab world


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 settlement construction restrictions that Netanyahu just imposed upon his government in deference to the Trump peace effort; the lack of substance in the self-imposed restrictions; whether Netanyahu is pulling the wool over Trump’s and Greenblatt’s eyes; the likelihood that Trump and Greenblatt will soon put a peace proposal on the table; and changing US military and diplomatic behavior in the Arab world.


Q. How would you characterize the settlement-construction restrictions that Netanyahu just imposed upon his government in deference to the Trump peace effort?

A. Netanyahu’s “voluntary” unilateral gesture of restrictions appears to be a clever attempt to preempt possible peace process pressures from Trump while obfuscating the real nature of those restrictions. This way, Netanyahu seemingly hopes to keep both Trump (and his emissary Jason Greenblatt) and the settlers satisfied.


Q. How does this work? Why are Trump and Greenblatt supposed to suffice with this?

A. The Trump administration, through Greenblatt, has been negotiating settlement construction restrictions with Netanyahu, thus far without a successful outcome. Now Netanyahu has announced unilaterally that Israel will build only within existing settlements, will do so in moderation, and will not permit the establishment of new “illegal” outposts. Reading between the lines, this is less than what Greenblatt has been asking but is designed to be seen as an unsolicited gesture of good will that preempts Greenblatt’s anticipated requests. Netanyahu has also apparently agreed to an administration request to invest in economic good-will gestures toward the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although here too no agreement has been publicized.


Q. Well, are the self-imposed restrictions substantive in nature?

A. Judging by the settler leaders’ casual acceptance, and based on experience, no, they are not substantive. The built-up area in most settlements in most cases covers a relatively modest portion of the actual area allotted to the settlements’ jurisdiction, meaning the state or crown lands claimed by Israel and designated for each settlement. Netanyahu says construction will be confined to the existing built-up area and, when that is full, will take place immediately adjacent to that area. This leaves room for most settlements ultimately to double their physical size and their population, layer upon concentric layer. Why should the settlers be unhappy?

As for illegal outposts, how can Netanyahu not commit to enforcing Israel’s own laws? Based on experience, enforcement here will continue to be shoddy and selective.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s new unilateral rules allow for one actual settlement to be constructed deep in the Samarian heartland for the 40 families recently removed from the illegal outpost of Amona. This will be the first new government-sponsored settlement in the territories in 20 years: a precedent that offers another reason for settler satisfaction. Further, 2,000 new dwellings have been approved for marketing, and no restrictions will be placed on construction in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem.


Q. So Netanyahu is pulling the wool over Trump’s and Greenblatt’s eyes.

A. Netanyahu is clearly seeking to broadcast to his government and the settlers the need to project caution in their approach to Trump. The settler camp, led politically by Naftali Bennet of HaBait HaYehudi, already understands that Trump’s election will not mean, as they had initially hoped, a green light to expand settlements freely and begin annexing parts of the West Bank. Greenblatt for his part attended last week’s Arab League Summit in Jordan where he met with virtually every Arab leader. And those same Arab leaders are in the process of visiting Washington, one after another.

Seen against this backdrop, Trump’s generalized demand regarding slowing down settlement expansion clearly signals that some sort of Trump administration initiative regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict is in the works. Israel is expected not to embarrass the president in the interim. If Trump demands more settlement restrictions, Netanyahu will make more cosmetic modifications.

At this point, a crisis in Israel-US relations over the settlements is hardly in Netanyahu’s interest. He still expects a broad degree of general support from Trump, for example regarding Syria and the Russian and Iranian presence there. Indeed, Israel has asked the Trump administration to take a proactive role in getting the Russians and Iranians to leave Syria. Besides, Netanyahu apparently does not know what sort of demands and proposals Greenblatt is putting together. Finally, Netanyahu understands that this administration is broadly ignorant of all the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian issue: how and where settlements are built, and why nearly 24 years of the Oslo process have witnessed repeated failures.

Netanyahu knows that when Trump casually said “I am looking at two states or one state, and I like the one that both parties like,"  he was simply echoing a phrase Netanyahu had fed him in order to keep the Netanyahu coalition’s anti-two-state right wing happy. Trump almost certainly was not really contemplating a one-state policy, nor did he have any idea of the import of his statement.

In this situation, then, Netanyahu’s new settlement “restrictions” should be understood as an opening gambit designed to persuade an as-yet naive administration that Netanyahu’s intentions are pure, while simultaneously keeping his coalition happy--but also signaling that more is to come.


Q. But isn’t it obvious to Netanyahu that Trump and Greenblatt will soon put a peace proposal on the table?

A. It looks that way. But I presume Netanyahu is making the following calculation: Like most initiatives Trump makes, this one too will be all smoke and mirrors. I need to make sure that when this Middle East virtual real estate deal crashes, I won’t be blamed. Hence my opening gesture, unsolicited. If Trump gets tough with Israel and threatens or imposes sanctions, then I need to be able to maneuver while keeping my coalition together and staying one step ahead of Greenblatt.


Q. The bottom line?

A. We may indeed be looking soon at some sort of administration peace proposal. But it is likely to appear relatively unsophisticated. Netanyahu, who has no real interest in a genuine two-state solution because he covets both the land and his political base, needs to make sure that when it fails the Palestinians are blamed. Meanwhile, he does not want a crisis over settlements to be the reason he initiates new elections.

As for Trump, the new president has managed to project a sufficiently blustery and no-nonsense “take no prisoners” image in the Middle East that the region’s leaders feel compelled to be extremely deferential to his emissary Greenblatt, who removes his kipa (for security reasons?) when in the region. Trump is reinforcing that image by gradually increasing US force deployment in Arab world conflicts, relaxing US rules of engagement, and virtually eliminating US human rights campaigning. Of course these same Middle East leaders, Netanyahu included, are far less likely to roll over meekly if they don’t like the concessions the administration’s peace plans demand of them.


Q. Can you be more specific regarding changing US military and diplomatic behavior in the Arab world? Is Trump rolling back Obama’s policies?  

A. On some issues, clearly. For example, with Egyptian leader Sisi coming to Washington this week, it’s clear that the new administration is no longer pressing leaders like him on human rights issues. Indeed, the State Department’s budget for humanitarian activities has been virtually wiped out. Bahrain is also benefitting militarily from the absence of administration human rights criticism or criteria for arms supplies.

Then too, the administration appears to have allowed the US military to relax some rules of engagement and has shortened the chain of command in combat zone situations in the Middle East. One result has been heightened Arab civilian casualties in Yemen and the Mosul battle in Iraq. And while US military activities against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq, Syria, Yemen  and Somalia appear inadvertently to serve Iran’s regional objectives as well (as they did in Obama’s day), there are indications the US Navy may soon more actively respond to Iranian naval challenges in key choke points like the Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb straits where Iran has been challenging the US. This would constitute a sharp departure from Obama era caution.

Washington is also gradually ramping up active military cooperation with the region’s more moderate Arabs, for example supporting Emirati campaigns in Yemen.

All of this, with the exception of a military confrontation with Iran on the seas, still fits the Obama pattern of “leading from behind”, albeit with a more aggressive and less discriminating US profile. But there are also incremental increases in US combat personnel in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. There are now about 6,000 American troops in Iraq and nearly 1,000 on the ground in Syria. These are small but gradual increments, and all are designated ostensibly for combat support rather than direct combat.

Where this is going is difficult to say. A naval clash with Iran could spiral out of control. If the current dynamic continues, there will inevitably be American casualties in Iraq and Syria. An administration that has just threatened to deal with North Korea militarily (if China doesn’t restrain Pyongyang) could also deploy combat units to take Raqqa in Syria and mop up in Mosul, Iraq. Meanwhile, with no place for human rights on the Trump battlefield, the Yemenis can continue starving.

Obama’s determination to get the US military out of the Middle East had its advantages, such as reduction of American casualties nearly to zero and the capacity to channel budgetary resources to critical domestic needs. It also had its drawbacks: US-backed regime changes in Egypt and Libya proved unwise, and today we witness both Russia and Iran resurgent in the region. Obama also proved incapable of delivering on many US human rights demands in the region such as the removal of Bashar Assad in Syria--a demand Trump has now abandoned.

If Trump now intends gradually to upgrade the US Middle East combat profile, his administration should prepare for two negative outcomes: domestic American controversy over US casualties in thankless wars that cannot be won; and revival of the Colin Powell rule, “you break it, you own it.”