Viewpoints, February 2017
Prof. Eytan Gilboa
During his first weeks in office, US President Donald Trump rushed to implement many of his campaign commitments. He was somewhat more cautious about carrying out his major promises concerning Israel.
While making a few statements about Israeli-Palestinian issues, his administration took some action relating to Iran. For Israel, Iran’s policies and behavior are much more significant than the conflict with the Palestinians.
Trump quickly clarified that his approach to Iran will be very different from the one adopted by former President Barack Obama. By testing a medium-range ballistic missile, Iran also tested Trump’s willingness to stand by his commitments.
“Iran is playing with fire,” the president tweeted and imposed new sanctions on Tehran. Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn said the missile test was “in defiance of” UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama had ignored similar testing violations, Iranian war crimes in Syria, its support for terrorism and the intervention in Yemen. He believed that tough US responses would imperil the nuclear deal – in his eyes his greatest foreign policy achievement.
Iran tests a Shahab-3 medium-range (over 1,900 kilometers) ballistic missile; Credit: Iran Revolutionary Guards.
Trump took the opposite approach. He imposed new sanctions on people and organizations responsible in Iran for the missile development and terrorism. He also sent a destroyer to the Gulf of Aden, and begun military exercises in the area with naval forces of several countries including Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Australia.
Trump has yet to put into motion the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – one of his major campaign pledges to Israel. His Press Secretary Sean Spicer, explained: “We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.”
Trump is presumably gauging the possible reactions of such an action, especially in the Arab and Muslim world. He may also wish to use the issue as leverage to change the Palestinian strategy of internationalizing the conflict. The Palestinian Authority has approached international organizations, such as the UN Security Council, and international forums, such as the recent Paris Mideast peace conference, with the intention of achieving one-sided anti-Israeli resolutions.
Trump may tell the Palestinians that he won’t transfer the embassy in return for Palestinian willingness to immediately resume direct and unconditional negotiations with Israel.
“For Israel, Iran’s policies and behavior are much more significant than the conflict with the Palestinians“
The second Israeli-Palestinian issue is the settlements in the West Bank. Trump has sharply diverged from the stance of Obama, who defined the settlements as illegal and the most serious obstacle to peace negotiations. In 2010, he even forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlement construction for 10 months, but the Palestinians still didn’t show up for negotiations. Obama continued to severely criticize every Israeli announcement on settlement construction, even though, implementation was limited and slow.
Trump created the impression that unlike Obama, he is not much bothered by Israeli settlements. The Israeli right interpreted this as a green light to substantially expand and build new settlements. Netanyahu’s government announced plans to add 3,000 housing units, mostly to neighborhoods around Jerusalem and in the big settlement blocks.
Trump’s White House stated: “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
Unlike Obama, Trump doesn’t think that the settlements are illegal and the main obstacle to peace. He also suggests that building inside existing boundaries is acceptable, but beyond them, it mayn’t not be helpful to achieve peace. This formula isn’t new. It first appeared in a letter sent by President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April 2004. The letter also won Congressional approval, but was ignored by Obama.
Trump is scheduled to meet Netanyahu at the White House on February 15. This would be an opportunity for the two leaders to exchange ideas and coordinate policies on Iran, the Palestinians and other critical Middle East issues.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa has held senior academic positions at Bar-Ilan University, and is currently Chair and Academic Director of the IPD Forum.