Donald Trump’s win in the presidential race, and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, have signaled to some members of Israel’s government that hard times are over with regard to American disapproval of settlement building in the West Bank. In their euphoria, pro-settler party leaders have pursued two very different approaches to moving forward with the settlement effort.
One leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Orthodox Jewish Home party, declared that Trump’s victory was “an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the center of the country” and that it signaled that the “era of a Palestinian state is over.”
In pursuit of that goal, a government ministerial committee on Nov. 13 unanimously passed a bill designed to retroactively legalize outposts that sit far from established settlements. The bill, which was approved despite the objections of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and significant legal concerns raised by his attorney general, would effectively enlarge Israeli-controlled areas throughout the West Bank. It would create a situation that diplomats fear would make a contiguous Palestinian state all but impossible.
Another pro-settler leader, however, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman — head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party — counseled caution in fulfilling the dream to settle all of the historic Land of Israel. Lieberman proposed a deal in which Israel would not build on the Palestinian side of Israel’s security fence, in exchange for the right to unrestrained building in the settlement blocs along the Green Line. “In the messages we received from the Trump team, they asked us to act modestly. We will wait and we won’t establish facts on the ground,” Lieberman said.
We welcome Lieberman’s recognition that provocative actions regarding settlements will not build trust. That was part of what soured Netanyahu’s relationship with President Barack Obama. Any activity that closes off the possibility of a two-state solution is likely to engender strong international opposition and would not appear to be in the longer term interests of the Palestinians or Israel.
Lieberman’s proposal is consistent with his goal of carving out a Palestinian state through land swaps. In the past, he has favored Israel annexing the Israeli settlement blocs on the West Bank and then ceding heavily Arab populated areas of Israel proper — specifically in the Galilee — to the Palestinians. However, he hasn’t explained how he proposes to get Israeli citizens to agree to become part of another country.
Notwithstanding some bravado, both Lieberman and Bennett understand that the Palestinians exist and that they cannot be wished away. Whether they are willing to acknowledge that settlements and land swaps are the stuff of negotiations, and that the Palestinians need to be a part of that effort, is another story. We hope that sensibility and sensitivity to these issues will prevail under a Trump administration as efforts move forward with respect to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian puzzle.