The Jerusalem Post published a surprising report in June: According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of construction starts for housing in the settlements has been in a “downward spiral” ever since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and hit a six-year low in the first quarter of 2018.
Granted, Israel’s government regularly approves plans for thousands of new settlement homes. But it rarely authorizes their actual construction. Moreover, even these “new approvals” are often just recycled plans that were previously approved but never built.
That settlement construction has plummeted under Trump may seem counterintuitive, given that Israel’s government is still comprised mainly of pro-settlement parties and Trump’s friendly administration has consistently refused to criticize settlement activity. Indeed, Hagit Ofran of the left-wing group Peace Now told the Post she couldn’t explain the drop.
But Ofran’s bewilderment merely proves, for the umpteenth time, that Israel’s far left doesn’t understand how the rest of the country thinks. In fact, as perceptive centrist Yossi Klein Halevi noted in a 2013 interview with The Times of Israel, most Israelis’ willingness to please the “international community” has always been directly proportional to how supportive they feel that community is of Israel.
Klein Halevi interpreted this primarily as an emotional response, citing two examples as evidence. One was Sebastia, the first settlement deep in the northern West Bank. Initially, the Rabin government opposed it. But in November 1975, the United Nations passed its infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution, and Israelis became “so enraged at the U.N. that they adopt Gush Emunim [the settlement movement] as the response,” said Klein Halevi. Three weeks later, the settlers overcame the government’s opposition.
He then contrasted this with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, which broke the Arab world’s decades-long boycott of Israel. Sadat made this gesture with no guarantee of Israeli recompense and at considerable cost: Many Arab countries severed relations with Egypt and even slapped an economic boycott on it; Sadat himself was assassinated by an angry Islamist four years later. But as Klein Halevi wrote, Sadat’s “genius was to understand that the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace.” Less than a year later, Menachem Begin’s rightist government, which had previously opposed any territorial concessions, agreed to return the entire Sinai for peace with Egypt.
Yet while emotion undoubtedly plays a major role in decision-making, it would be a mistake to ignore the equally significant role played by realpolitik: No politician will prefer the international community’s desires to those of his own constituents unless he or she is convinced that doing so will bring Israel international benefits that outweigh the domestic costs. And nothing illustrates this better than the settlement issue.
Contrary to his image overseas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never displayed much interest in settlement expansion. As I’ve noted before, settlement construction during most of his last nine years in office was lower than under any of his predecessors, including leftists like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. Even Haaretz—no fan of Netanyahu—subsequently reached that same conclusion.
But most of Netanyahu’s party and many of his coalition partners do favor expanding settlements. Thus to persuade them to show restraint, he must be able to show that doing so will produce tangible international benefits—either increased international support or at least reduced international hostility. And since no Israeli concession has ever produced any recompense from Europe, realistically, that means America.
Under the Obama administration, settlement restraint provided no benefits whatsoever. In 2009, for instance, Netanyahu instituted an unprecedented 10-month settlement freeze to facilitate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, refused even to show up for nine months and then walked out in the 10th. But Obama still blamed Netanyahu for the talks’ failure.
Five years of below-average settlement construction later, another round of talks collapsed. As an American negotiator recalled, “In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with [Secretary of State John] Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally—not in writing. Abbas refused.” Yet the administration, dismissing Abbas’s rejectionism, again blamed Netanyahu, and specifically settlement construction.
Later that summer, Hamas and Israel fought a war. Rather than supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against missile attacks from Gaza—a territory it vacated nine years earlier—the Obama administration tried to impose a cease-fire that met most of Hamas’s demands and none of Israel’s. Adding insult to injury, it even halted certain weapons shipments to Israel.
At no point during Obama’s two terms did administration officials even give Netanyahu lip-service credit for restraining settlement construction. Instead, they picked nonstop public fights over the issue. Thus toward the end of Obama’s tenure, it had become impossible for Netanyahu to persuade his cabinet that Israel was gaining anything by this restraint, and settlement construction began rising again.
Yet during Trump’s first year as president, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 47 percent and dropped again in the first quarter of 2018. This is not surprising. Though Trump never made a public issue of settlement activity, his administration quietly told Netanyahu that it would appreciate restraint. And in Trump’s case, it was easy for Netanyahu to show that compliance would benefit Israel.
In the past 18 months, Trump has provided unstinting support for Israel at the United Nations via Ambassador Nikki Haley; recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there; publicly confronted the P.A.’s “pay to slay” policy; cut funding for UNRWA, the organization whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem; and abandoned the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. For anyone but the most rabid settlement supporter, this is clearly a worthwhile tradeoff.
That’s why Obama’s policy of putting “daylight” between America and Israel was always doomed to fail, and anyone who knew anything about Israel would have known it. For both emotional and realpolitik reasons, arm-twisting usually produces far less Israeli cooperation than a hug.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.