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Netanyahu wants Trump to believe he’s curtailing settlements even as he launches a new one

Life In Israel Across Religious Divides Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

In the past 24 hours, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced both the creation of a brand-new settlement in the occupied West Bank (widely reported as the first new, officially sanctioned settlement in 20 years), and promised to curtail settlement activity, in deference to President Donald Trump’s wishes.

Netanyahu, in other words, is trying to have it both ways.

The Israeli prime minister wants to appease his right-wing political coalition in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and live up to his promise to build a new settlement for the former residents of Amona, an illegal outpost that was evacuated under court order in February.

At the same time, though, Netanyahu wants to make the Trump administration feel he’s playing nicely. "This is a very friendly administration and we need to take his requests into consideration," Netanyahu told a late-night meeting of the Knesset’s security cabinet on Thursday, according to Ha’aretz.

Trump, for his part, has asked the Israelis for restraint on settlement building. “I'd like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” he said at a joint press conference with the prime minister in mid-February.

Netanyahu is walking a thin line. Already the White House issued a tetchy statement, telling the Times of Israel on Thursday evening:

President Trump has publicly and privately expressed his concerns regarding settlements. As the administration has made clear: while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace.

The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the President’s concerns into consideration. The United States welcomes this.

Yet last night, Netanyahu told Knesset members that promised units scheduled for building in existing settlements will also continue as planned.

“The claim that this is the first new [settlement] in 20 years is bullshit. It's the first openly acknowledged new settlement. In the past 20 years, outposts — the sanitized vocabulary for a settlement — have flourished and the settlement population has soared,” says Daniel Seidemann, director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, a nonprofit that monitors settlement growth and the borders of Israeli territory.

“This is classic Bibi [Netanyahu]. Giving into the settlers on the new settlement and saying, ‘I deflected the big bad wolf on settlement freeze and we can build as much as we want.’ And telling Trump, ‘I tossed the settlers a bone so I can give you a de facto freeze,’” Seidemann says. “He's lying to both and both likely know it.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with Netanyahu’s statement

Right-wing Israeli politicians may be pleased by Netanyahu’s announcement, and the Trump administration may be only mildly peeved. But the international community, and the Palestinians, responded with predictable alarm to the news of a new settlement.

A spokesperson for UN Chief António Guterres said the UN leader was dismayed. “The secretary-general has consistently stressed that there is no Plan B for Israelis and Palestinians to live together in peace and security," spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said in a statement. "He condemns all unilateral actions that, like the present one, threaten peace and undermine the two-state solution.”

Longtime Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi went even further, calling the Knesset announcements part of “systematic policies of settler colonialism, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing, showing a total and blatant disregard for Palestinian human rights."

"Israel is more committed to appeasing its illegal settler population than to abiding by the requirements for stability and a just peace," Ashrawi said.

Does all this sound familiar?

If all this sounds familiar, down to the White House response, there’s a reason for that.

The Trump White House — aside from repeatedly stating that they “don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” which was a departure from 20-odd years of diplomatic speech on settlements — has begun moving in a direction on Israel, settlements, and the peace process that is far closer to the position of President Obama and his predecessors than seemed possible prior to January 20.

President-elect Trump and his surrogates talked what looked like a very different game. “It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace,” Trump transition Israel adviser Jason Greenblatt told Israeli Army Radio in November. (Greenblatt is now Trump’s special representative for international negotiations.)

Statements like that led to much celebration among the right-wing ministers of the Israeli Knesset. “The victory of Trump is a huge opportunity for Israel to immediately announce that it renounces the idea of establishing Palestine in the heart of the country,’’ Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Israel Home Party, said immediately after the election. That same week, Yoav Kish of the right-wing Likud Party, said, “We believe that the policy of freezing and blocking settlement expansion is over.”

But once in office, Trump’s statements shifted. In an interview with the right-wing Israeli daily newspaper Israel HaYom, which is funded by the prominent GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, Trump was asked about settlements: “They don't help the process,” he said at the time.

“I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we'll see,” Trump continued. “But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."

Netanyahu does seem to be doing exactly that: going forward. It remains to be seen whether his vague promises to the contrary will be enough to appease the Trump administration. It certainly hasn’t helped his standing in the international community.

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