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By: Galia Golan
One may assume that many leaders around the world are pleased to see the United States under a new administration. One leader who probably is not so pleased, however, is Benyamin Netanyahu of Israel, and possibly a large part of the Israeli public. Netanyahu had a great friend in Trump. The American President named as ambassador and advisors, men who had been supporters of the settlement movement in Israel and friends of right wing elements and people in Israel.
The Trump administration abandoned past official US objections to the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as illegal or at least as “obstructions to peace.” The new policy supported Israeli settlement building, as might have been expected given the fact that both the new ambassador and some of Trump’s closest official associates had contributed financially to the settlement project. In addition, Trump acceded to Israeli right wing interests in keeping east Jerusalem.
Almost immediately after the 1967 war, Israel had occupied, expanded and annexed east Jerusalem. Having changed the more customary official American position that east Jerusalem was “occupied territory to be resolved in a future peace agreement,” Trump reinforced the new US position by moving the country’s embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018.
Until that time, like most other countries, the Americans had adhered to the UN decision that created the state of Israel (the partition plan of 1947) that had designated all of Jerusalem an international city as a (corpus separendum) due to the importance of the holy sites there for three major religions. Israel had ignored that status, declaring west Jerusalem its capital and moving its government offices there in 1949, while Jordan, which had captured the eastern part of the city in the preceding war, absorbed East Jerusalem as Jordan’s second capital.
Subsequently, then President Trump further acceded to Israeli right wing policies by recognizing Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Height, which had also been captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Netanyahu honored this move by naming a town after Trump on the Golan. Still another acquiescence to right wing Israeli views, echoing Netanyahu’s repeated objections to the JCOPA plan to monitor or control Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Trump withdrew the United States from that agreement in May 2018.
Finally, Trump presented his deal of the century designed, he claimed, to end the Israel-Arab conflict. Designed in large part by Trump’s son in law, the Vision of Peace, as it was called, closely reflected Israeli interests and Netanyahu positions. Thus, not only was Jerusalem to remain united under Israeli sovereignty and the future Palestinian capital outside the historic borders of the city, but Israel was to maintain security for the whole area between the eastern (Palestinian) border with Jordan to the Mediterranean sea, along with Israeli approval for any Palestinian refugees who might seek entry to the new Palestinian state.
Moreover, all Israeli settlements would remain in the West Bank, as enclaves connected by bridges, tunnels and roads, within the future Palestinian state. In addition, Israel would annex the Jordan Rift Valley, an area constituting 30% of the West Bank along the border with Jordan.
The Plan even envisaged the transfer of a large portion of Arab citizens of Israel, with their communities, from Israel to the Palestinian. However, this draconic measure, promoted by elements to the right of Netanyahu, was dropped from the plan. And in his last year in office, Trump also helped engineer the signing of agreements between Israel and some of the Arab countries, namely UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Thus Netanyahu could, and did, proclaim that acceptance of the Jewish state within the Arab region could be achieved without withdrawing from an inch of Palestinian land. The occupation could continue uninterrupted, putting an end to the idea of land for peace. The Trump Vision might technically call for two states, but the conditions listed for the Palestinians to create a state, and the geographic, security and political plan for the state itself were such that the new situation would offer little more than autonomy for the Palestinians. This suited Netanyahu’s repeated declarations that there would not be an independent Palestinian state under his watch.
Given this alignment with the policies of Netanyahu’s party and government, it is no wonder that the Israeli leader is probably quite sorry to witness Trump’s departure. Moreover, the right wing in Israel has reason to be concerned over the new President. Biden, and his foreign policy team, have often spoken of, and apparently support, the two state solution. Biden has consistently supported American military aid to Israel, and rejected any linkage of political demands to the aid package. Indeed there is no reason to think that he had anything but support, as vice president, to president Obama’s, larger than usual,10-year, $38 billion military aid package to Israel in 2016.
Beyond the loss of his friend in the White House and the settlement supporters among the Trump family and associates, there are other worrisome matters for Netanyahu with the advent of the Biden administration. There are divisions with the Democratic Party, and progressive elements may push for a more dynamic Biden policy, designed even to actively pursue the two state solution. Netanyahu is well aware of this; he was relatively quick to congratulate Biden on his election, and to evoke a long-standing friendship.
But there was a more specific reason, perhaps, for Netanyahu’s concern, namely, his past, negative, experience with the new American president. This occurred in 2010, during an Obama negotiated freeze on settlement building that was designed to renew peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Then vice-president Biden made a trip to Israel, and during his official visit in Jerusalem, the Netanyahu government announced tenders for 1600 new houses in the Jewish neighborhood (actually a settlement) of Ramot Shlomo in east Jerusalem. Biden was indeed angered, and the incident let to a minor diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
Possibly wary of Biden’s memory of this incident, Netanyahu has taken steps to ensure certain building plans in the West Bank. Plans known as E-1 and E-2, calling for settlement construction in areas to the east and south of Jerusalem, were re-issued in what appears to be an effort to create facts on the ground just as Biden was taking office.
In the past, these plans had been announced but delayed, apparently because of opposition within Israel but primarily because of American objections. The issues included Israel’s claim to a security interest in protecting Jerusalem from threats from surrounding areas. This was a pre-1967 security concern, when Jerusalem had indeed been threatened by periodic attacks from Jordanian areas surrounding the city, in the north and the south. Thus, mistrust guided Israeli plans to lay claim to these areas, in case a Palestinian state might one day emerge. Mistrust of Arab future intentions had often guided Israel, especially in the Eshkol and Meir governments when Israel repeatedly rejected peace plans or Arab initiatives, and instead favored holding onto what were considered security assets if peace were not to hold.
Mistrust and past security concerns are just part of the picture. Israel already has settlements enveloping Jerusalem, Gush Etzion in the south and Maale Adumim in the east. The new plans would expand these areas, but the major problem with the E-1 and E-2 plans today is not just that they would entail more expropriation of land (Israeli expansionism), and would be illegal, but they would effectively split the West Bank into two. Palestinians would have to travel hours, to get around them, in order to move from the north to the south of the West Bank. Contiguity of a future Palestinian state would be rendered impossible.
Moving forward with these controversial plans may well be a sign of Netanyahu’s anticipation of difficulties he might now expect from the Biden administration. Aside from Biden’s clearly stated intention of changing US policy toward Iran, the least Netanyahu might fear would concern over future American behavior in the UN. Of particular concern may regard a possible repeat of Obama administration’s abstention, rather than veto, in 2016 of UN Security Council resolution 2334 that condemned Israeli settlement construction and called on member states to distinguish between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied by Israel.
An early sign that Netanyahu’s concerns may be well-founded was the appearance of a new designation in Twitter for the US Embassy in Israel. The day of the Biden inauguration, the Embassy appeared on Twitter, briefly, appeared in a “Screenshot of the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s Twitter account, January 20, 2021” as the Embassy of the United States to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza – that is, to three separate entities. An Embassy spokesperson said that this was not a policy change, and the designation appeared only briefly, but it was reported in the Israeli major daily Haaretz and cannot have gone unnoticed by Netanyahu. Is this a sign of things to come?