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What to Expect?

From the Desk of Dr Ron Weiser AM

Since his election, Donald Trump has said remarkably little on Israel at all. Yet it is rather amazing to see how many people are certain he will do this or that based on whoever they choose to listen to of Trump’s family members, friends or advisors of the day – many of whom by the way give contradictory messages. In 4 broad areas, we can at least say the following:

– In terms of the tone of the discourse between Israel and the USA we should begin with a much improved atmosphere and with a better understanding of the realities of the situation faced by Israel, than under President Obama.

– When it comes to the question of moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, which would be a huge positive both symbolically and with large policy implications, we might hold our praise until the event actually happens. Trump is not the first President to have promised to do so and whilst his commitment is welcomed, the move itself is what would really count.

– One of Trump’s first post-election statements was a message to the Syrian opposition stating that the USA would not back them any longer. In a perverse way, ironically formalising the Obama doctrine of causing vacuums because of an unwillingness to exercise American power and by letting allies down.

If Trump actually follows through on that statement, he will have effectively handed Syria to an Iranian/Russian backed Assad. Trump identified ISIS as the prime enemy and announced his willingness to join Assad/Putin/Iran (without mentioning Iran) in defeating them.

As far as Israel is concerned, ISIS is not an ideal neighbour, but bringing Iran to Israel’s border and creating a bridge for Iran to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and strengthening Hezbollah, is not exactly a win.

– A lot will become clearer once we know who Trump nominates to key positions. What we have seen so far is that Trump has continued to confound the “experts” by making some unusual/unexpected appointments and in a sign of quite some maturity seems to have reached out to some of his most erstwhile critics.

Were Romney, who is close to Netanyahu, to be appointed as Secretary of State for example, that would be regarded as a strong positive for Israel. So would a number of other names floated to date for this position.

If James Mattis does get Secretary of Defence on the other hand, he is far less understanding of many of Israel’s positions, especially that of the policies of Netanyahu’s government.

We will just have to wait and see and assess on results, not wishful thinking.

This week on the 29th of November we celebrated the 69th anniversary of the historic 1947 United Nations Resolution 181, which partitioned what was left of the British Mandate into a “Jewish State and an Arab State”.

Like it or not, the 2 State for 2 People resolution is what we bought into and what we have kept to since then.

It’s death has been prematurely announced by many before.

The main effect Trump’s election has had on Israel thus far, has been on her internal politics and it is destabilising the Israeli government with even further complications arising because of two other timing considerations.

But first the destabilisation.

And it is not necessarily Trump’s doing as much as the people around him.

Naphtali Bennet (the head of Netanyahu’s Israel Our Home coalition partner) and some elements within the Likud, claiming to have spoken to “Trump’s People” have already interpreted Trump’s win as the end of the 2 State solution and a green light from the USA for settlement building and expansion outside of the blocks.

Bennett has moved to legislate the Regulation Bill which would in effect ipso facto make legal many of the small unauthorised outposts.

Despite fierce opposition to this proposed legislation from both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Lieberman, who were

outvoted within the Cabinet, the proposal passed through committee and went to the Knesset.

The proposed law is also opposed by the Israeli Attorney General on the grounds of being unconstitutional.

So, the mere fact that the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister lost all of their authority on this, caused severe tremors within the government.

No-one seriously thinks this will become law as is, but by using the Trump factor, Bennett has played to his electorate with an eye on the next Israeli election.

As I have pointed out in the past the addition of Lieberman to the Israeli government coalition, is having the opposite effect to how most commentators described his entry to government and his policies. He was called an “ultranationalist” and he was described as taking the Israeli government to the “extreme right”.

Of course this is just plain wrong.

Lieberman continually disproves his critics and is in effect today probably the most left wing minister in the Israeli government in many ways. He too claims to have spoken to “Trump’s People” but has taken Trump’s election to mean something quite different from Bennett.

Lieberman who is a “settler” resident of Nokdim said last week: “This might not be the right thing to say when considering our electorates, but focusing on building in places where 80 percent of the population is living in settlements instead of building in Nokdim or settlements outside the blocks, would be a positive step.”

In fact, Lieberman has stated publicly and repeatedly that Israel should look upon the Trump victory as an opportunity to push for Trump’s acceptance of the Bush/Sharon letters of 2004 which, based on the (Bill) Clinton parameters of 2000, guaranteed that Israel would remain a Jewish State i.e. no return of Palestinians or their descendants to Israel. As well as under a land swap arrangement, the retention of the large settlement blocks within Israel.

Of course, the quid pro quo was that there would also be a Palestinian State.

One of the main differences of opinion between Israel and President Obama – and it was an across the board Israel – was that Obama did not accept the validity of the Bush letters as being part of his policy, despite this being an agreement between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel of the day.

In case anyone was in doubt as to his position, Lieberman claimed that he had spoken again to some key Trump advisers and said – note “further confirmation”:

“If we receive further confirmation from the new administration in accordance with the Bush-Sharon agreement, we should wholeheartedly take it on and not build outside the blocks. We should take it step by step, in accordance with the correspondence, not exacerbate matters, not take more on and not diminish from it, either.”

Pretty much the opposite conclusions that Bennet drew from his claimed contacts within the Trump caravan.

As Gill Hoffman wrote on the 18th of November in the Jerusalem Post:

“If the international community saw Lieberman’s appointment as a sign Israel was distancing itself from the two-state solution, his announcement Wednesday should be a wakeup call to the world about how wrong they were.”

So, against the background of Bennett’s attempts to improve his domestic standing, risking the PM’s authority in the Cabinet and having Lieberman act as his public proxy, Prime Minister Netanyahu is having to also consider the international implications of the two other timing issues I referred to earlier.

1 – Trump is President elect. Obama still occupies the Presidency until 20 January. Netanyahu is extremely wary of upsetting Obama in this final period, hoping to avoid triggering any last minute “gestures” Obama may leave behind, such as formulating an outline agreement without direct negotiations between the parties.

2 – The Israeli High Court has given its final order to the government to tear down the nearly twenty year old unauthorised outpost of Amona, which consists of some 41 families. The final date for this is the 25th of December.

Of course, 1 and 2 are connected. Bennett’s bill was designed to attempt to stop 2. Or at least to appear to do so.

Which could be the trigger for 1.

Once again, it is not easy to be the Prime Minister of Israel.

Until Obama is no longer President and Trump is in office and until we understand exactly what Trump as President intends for the Middle East, it’s going to be tough to predict anything accurately.