WASHINGTON – Knesset authorization of a land law in Area C of the West Bank — which is outside its purview — sparked outrage worldwide this week, but drew virtual silence from the White House, where the president’s team is preparing for a critical visit from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday.
The Trump administration had two convenient excuses to defer comment: The prime minister’s upcoming visit and the likelihood that the bill will die on arrival at Israel’s High Court, which has ruled repeatedly against Knesset jurisdiction in the Palestinian territories.
Trump officials were aware that this legislation was in the works throughout the presidential transition period, prompting outgoing President Barack Obama to condemn Israeli lawmakers and reconsider his stance at the UN Security Council on settlement activity. They knew this bill was coming down the pipe when Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman suggested in December that a vote should be deferred until after Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20.
Liberman made this suggestion based on the assumption that Trump, once in office, would allow the move to go unpunished. But that assumption no longer holds water.
Given the law would retroactively legalize roughly 4,000 units, its enforcement would amount to a rebuke of the Trump administration, now that the White House has called on the Israeli government to cease the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing ones.
That statement, originally made to The Jerusalem Post, shocked Israelis and Americans alike who expected leniency from the new president on the settlement matter. But Trump administration officials were hoping for time and space to formulate their policy on settlements before Netanyahu’s visit. A relentless stream of developments may be affecting that policy-making process.
Trump plans to sit Netanyahu down on February 15 for a “long conversation” focused on Middle East peace, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says – not specifically on Iran, as surely Netanyahu would prefer. The Trump administration has vowed a publicly respectful relationship with the Israeli government and people. But Netanyahu may be walking into a similar meeting as he did in 2009 when he first met with Obama in the Oval Office – and found himself caught off guard by that administration’s policy ideas, including a total freeze on settlement activity.
That 2009 meeting was dubbed “the ambush” in Israel, as Netanyahu had no forewarning of Obama’s dramatic request. With Trump officials expressing concern with settlements, strong interest in a peace process and frustration with Israel’s recent actions, the prime minister may be in for another surprise.