The Wrecking Ball

AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

A Palestinian man stands in front of an Israeli bulldozer to try to stop work during a protest outside the village of Deir Qaddis, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. 

We interrupt this broadcast from America's airports with an economic bulletin: Already, Donald Trump is creating jobs—not by action but simply by his amoral aura, by his projection of chaotic cluelessness, by the mere fact of taking power.

OK, the jobs will be offshore: in the West Bank, building new homes in Israeli settlements—and in the process, burying Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects.

The simple version of the story is this: Two days after that under-attended inauguration in Washington, the Jerusalem City Council—suddenly liberated from U.S. pressure—gave the go-ahead to build over 560 new homes in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Soon after, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman signed off on 2,500 more homes in the rest of the West Bank.

The reversal was stark: Only last month—and several political eons ago—the previous administration enraged Netanyahu by abstaining on a Security Council resolution against Israeli settlements. Under the new regime, White House spokesman Sean Spencer blew off a reporter's question about the new construction. “Israel,” he replied, “continues to be a huge ally of the United States.” (Huge!) Mark another piece of the Obama legacy, and of long-standing American policy, as swept away by the Trump tsunami.

The one small comfort, as reported in the Israeli press and echoed by foreign media, is that nearly all of the new building is in the “settlement blocs,” the large suburban clumps that could supposedly remain in Israeli hands under a two-state agreement. Apparent implication: All is not lost. 

Actually, the story is more interesting, and even darker, than this. To be sure, the complications and intrigues don't relieve Trump of one gram of blame. Trump's choice of David Friedman—settlement fundraiser and frothing far-right ideologue—to serve as the next American ambassador to Israel was just one of his blatant signals that if, by chance, he understands what settlements are, he has no objection to them. Naming son-in-law Jared Kushner as his “broker a Middle East peace deal,” was another signal. Kushner's family foundation has given cash to various West Bank settlement institutions, including Od Yosef Hai yeshivah, whose clerics have a decades-long record of condoning acts of Jewish terror against Palestinians.

Besides specific gestures, there's the wider picture: Just as Trump's rise to power has given license and adrenaline to domestic haters, his autocratic, nationalist, piss-off-the-world-before-breakfast ascent gives carte blanche and steroids to hardline nationalists around the world. Netanyahu is just a case in point.

Still, that doesn't absolve others of a share of responsibility. To start, American pressure never stopped settlement building, under Barack Obama or any other president. From September 1967, when Washington first learned of Israeli settlement in occupied territory, the State Department and White House have issued objections. The bulldozers kept working.

At times, the effect of U.S. pressure has been to slow—but by no means stop—settlement construction. At times, the effect of U.S. peace efforts, pursued without demanding an absolute freeze on construction, has actually been to accelerate settlement expansion. An unusually overt example: Ariel Sharon, then Israel's foreign minister, returned from the Wye River summit of 1998 and publicly called on settlers to “run, should grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that's grabbed, will be in our hands. Everything we don't grab will be in their hands.”

It's true that Washington doesn't have a remote control for switching Israeli policy. There's a difference between a client state and a puppet state. But on matters other than settlements, Washington has from time to time applied greater and more successful pressure. During the 1991 war with Iraq, for instance, the Bush administration made it clear that Israel should not respond to Iraqi missile attacks. That would have played into the Iraqi strategy of turning the war into an Arab-Israeli conflict and breaking up the U.S.-led coalition. More recently, it appears that the Obama administration firmly told Netanyahu not to attack Iran's nuclear plants.

Those are matters of war and peace. But in 1985, the Reagan administration rather successfully pushed Israel to give up such social democratic policies as food subsidies.

There are domestic Israeli political reasons that America's stance on settlements has had less effect, and domestic American reasons that less pressure was exerted. But the bottom line is that U.S. administrations from Johnson's to Obama's have played the part assigned to them in the Hebrew political saying: “The dogs bark and the convoy rolls past.” Under Trump, the construction is likely to be much quicker, the damage done greater—but the foundation was literally laid over 50 years when Washington did not do enough beyond barking.

According to media reports, most of the homes in settlements approved by Netanyahu will be in the settlement blocs. The implied suggestion is that the new buildings will be half-kosher, because those areas are slated to become part of Israel even in a two-state agreement. American pundits and policy experts aligned with the Israeli right have in the past claimed that under presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Washington accepted construction in large groups of settlements close to the pre-1967 border. Or as Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2009, “the U.S. government has understood that any final peace treaty would involve Israel retaining some of the close-in settlements—and compensating the Palestinians accordingly with land from within Israel itself.”

This is the kind of quarter-truth that's more dangerous than falsehood. The idea of land swaps has indeed been part of intermittent peace talks since the last days of the Clinton administration. But there was never any agreement on what the blocs were. The Israeli conception always included much bigger chunks of land than any Palestinian negotiator could imaginably accept.

When “settlement blocs” are discussed in Israel, they usually include places like Ariel, an Israeli town in the northern West Bank. Netanyahu and Lieberman have reportedly signed off on over 800 new housing units in Ariel. Yet Ariel is deep in the West Bank. It's part of a finger of Israeli settlement intended to break up Palestinian territory and make it more difficult to create a Palestinian state.

But then, that's the purpose of everything that Netanyahu is doing in the occupied territories. When Obama was president, Netanyahu paid tribute—on even-numbered days of the week—to a two-state agreement. Now he can dispense with that hypocrisy.

Trump taking power, however, is only half the explanation for Netanyahu's settlement offensive. The other half is that he is in deep legal and political trouble. Last week he repeatedly underwent police questioning. In one affair, he's suspected of illegally asking for and getting expensive gifts from billionaires. In another, even more sordid affair, he allegedly negotiated with the owner-editor of a major paper to use legislation to increase his profits in return for flattering coverage.

If indicted, Netanyahu doesn't automatically have to quit, but the odds are that his coalition would break up. A rush of new settlement building is a very clear choice to divert attention from the investigations and to show his voters and his coalition partners that they need him in power.

Trump didn't create Netanyahu's legal troubles. But Trump has given him the opportunity to use bulldozers in occupied territory for the short-term goal of saving himself politically—and for his longer-term goal of cementing Israeli rule over the West Bank.

This is very far offshore for Americans. I can't attach the names of individual people affected, as one can in a report from a U.S. airport. But millions of Palestinians and Israelis have a darker future because of the Trump regime. 

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