Israel Pulse

Netanyahu maneuvers to please Trump and settlers

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes that the announcement of new housing units in Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line won’t trigger President Donald Trump’s anger.

The office of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat announced July 6 that it expected approval for the construction of 800 new housing units in neighborhoods across the Green Line, but the statement received very little attention. The White House has not condemned the move, even though Barkat said in his statement, "Construction in Jerusalem is necessary, important and will continue in full force so as to enable more young people to live in Jerusalem, build their future there and strengthen the capital of Israel."

The plan includes the Jewish neighborhoods of Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaakov, Ramot and Gilo, in addition to the construction of 114 housing units in East Jerusalem. Still, this number is minuscule, considering the housing crisis in the city's Arab neighborhoods, and certainly when compared to the planned scope of construction in its Jewish neighborhoods.

Netanyahu's office was informed of the construction plan and gave it the green light, so that this was not a case of Barkat taking advantage of the situation. The procedure for updating the prime minister went into effect in 2010, during the Barack Obama administration. It was instigated by a serious crisis that broke out between Netanyahu and the White House, following an announcement that construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem had been approved. That announcement was made on the day that Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel for an official visit in March 2010. The Americans were furious. Netanyahu claimed he knew nothing about it. To appease the Americans, he ordered the creation of a committee to investigate the chain of events that led to the approval.

Tracking Netanyahu's attitude toward construction in the settlements ever since he was elected in 2009 is a fascinating exercise. It reveals that he adopts the same tactic time and again, maneuvering between the Israeli hard right and the US administration.

Unlike the chairman of pro-settlement HaBayit HaYehudi, Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu is not an ideologue who advocates construction in the West Bank. Nevertheless, as leader of the right, he is expected to show that he identifies with the settlement enterprise and is taking action to support it. On the other hand, Netanyahu is also well aware of how sensitive the international community and the United States in particular are to anything to do with construction across the 1967 Green Line, which is considered detrimental to the implementation of a two-state solution.

During the Obama administration, the White House showed zero tolerance toward construction in the settlements. For his part, Netanyahu agreed to freeze construction in the West Bank as proof of how serious he is to advancing the idea of a two-state solution, as he declared in his Bar Ilan speech in 2009. As far as the right was concerned, it was nothing less than a disaster.

The freeze lasted 10 months, during which Israel kept its commitment. Even after that period, however, Netanyahu continued to act in a balanced manner. He showed restraint and would not allow a frenzy of construction across the Green Line.

The prime minister is using the same tactic today, during the Donald Trump administration. With the end of the Obama administration, the settler right, led by Bennett, called for a new wave of construction and annexation in the territories, arguing that Trump was pro-settler and that this was a historic window of opportunity, which they would probably never see again. To their chagrin, Netanyahu was unwilling to remove all restraints. He showed moderation, even before Trump asked him to do so.

Right after Trump's inauguration, the Municipality of Jerusalem took the symbolic step of approving the construction of 566 housing units in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. It was a measured step, taken with Netanyahu's knowledge. Several weeks later, Netanyahu took steps to block a law proposed by Bennett to annex the settlement town of Maale Adumim by presenting the Cabinet with plans to build new housing in the settlement blocs. At the time, he explained that it was important that the Israeli government not surprise the new US administration with an annexation proposal. Bennett was appeased and Netanyahu scored another successful maneuver to his credit.

Netanyahu and Minster of Defense Avigdor Liberman later approved the planning and construction of 2,500 housing units in the West Bank. Nevertheless, settlement umbrella organization the Yesha Council responded that the program was deceptive, as it failed to meet the settlers' needs. Once again, they called on the government to approve all construction plans already on the shelf and to release construction tenders throughout the entire territory of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.

From his perspective, Netanyahu once again showed his commitment to construction in the settlements. At the same time, however, he made sure not to get carried away. He restrained himself even before Trump asked him to do so explicitly, during the prime minister's visit to the White House in February. "We will make an effort and assess it," Netanyahu responded to Trump at the time.

One month later, the Cabinet approved the construction of a new settlement, the first in two decades, for the Amona settlement evacuees. At the same time, Netanyahu notified his ministers of the marketing of 2,000 housing units out of the 5,700 units planned for the West Bank.

As a result, the White House said that Trump expressed his concerns about the settlements both publicly and privately. Netanyahu got the message and immediately presented his Cabinet with the understandings he had reached with the US administration to restrain construction in the settlements. At the time, his office announced that in consideration of the president's positions, Israel would take significant steps to limit construction sites beyond the existing allotted to construction in the settlements, all in an effort to advance the peace process. Furthermore, it was announced that Israel would not allow the creation of any new illegal outposts.

Netanyahu informed his Cabinet about the new policy, which took the position of the US president into consideration. He stressed to his ministers that the Trump administration will be keeping close tabs on its implementation and that "the policy of restraint should be implemented. We should not try to deceive the Americans, because they know about every house that is built in the settlements."

In advance of Trump's May visit to Israel, Netanyahu's office even ordered that a discussion about construction in the settlements be postponed to avoid a conflict with the Whitehouse.

So far, Netanyahu has managed to maneuver successfully. He can use the pressure applied to him by Bennett to show the Americans how complicated his situation is, given the demands of his right-wing coalition partners. At the same time, in dealing with the settlers, he uses Trump's demand to restrain construction and explains why he must act responsibly. He really is a whiz at survival.

Found in: Settlements

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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