Nov 14, 2016
For years, the settlement movement in Israel sought international understanding, if not recognition, for their efforts to colonise the West Bank. But apart from far-right figures such a Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, they failed to gain any significant support.
Now, with the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States, settlers feel they are going to have a friend in the White House.
Trump's supporters opened a local headquarters in one of the settlements in the West Bank, and Yossi Dagan, head of Shomron local council, met in New York with one of Trump's senior aides before the election.
The day after Trump's stunning victory, Dagan described Trump as "a friend of the settlements". He was not alone.
Naftali Bennett, education minister and head of the Jewish Home party, euphorically claimed that with Trump's election, "the era of the (independent) Palestinian state is over".
For Bennett and his ilk, the dark times of Barack Obama's administration, who forced a settlement freeze in his first year in office, are over and bright days lie ahead.
As a total outsider to conventional politics, it is difficult to guess exactly what Trump's positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are, if he has any at all.
During his campaign, some of his aides gave statements which make Bennett look like a peace-loving liberal. Senator Newt Gingrich, who is being touted as a possible candidate to the office of secretary of state, had previously expressed his conviction that the Palestinians are "an invented people".
On the other hand, early on in the campaign, as Palestinian commentators have reminded us, Trump said he would demand that Israel pay for the huge military aid it now receives for free.
On another occasion, Trump noted that in order to be an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians, the US must adopt a neutral position, raising sharp criticism from the pro-Israeli lobby.
Right after the election, in an interview to Wall Street Journal, Trump said that as a "dealmaker", he would like to do the "ultimate deal" between Israelis and Palestinians, a statement which his friends in Israel might not like.
Hands off approach
Yet whether Trump will side with settlers or will show a more even-handed position, it seems safe to say that he is closer to the isolationist tradition well-entrenched in American foreign policy.
In this respect, he might be considered an heir to Obama, who preferred fixing America's internal problems to trying - and failing - to fix the problems in the Middle East.
It seems exaggerated to describe the Obama administration as "interventionist" regarding Israel's policy in the occupied territories. The recent $38bn dollar aid package is just one example of the support Obama gave to Israel. But it is true that every new construction project in the settlements was met with official American criticism.
It is quite probable that things will look different under the Trump administration, at least until he decides what his priorities are in the Middle East. The Israeli government may feel secure that it will not be met by American pressure if it chooses to enlarge settlements or build new ones. If Trump keeps his promise to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, it is unlikely that he will rush to condemn Israel for building in the Palestinian side of the city.
Building new Jewish neighbourhoods in the West Bank is, of course, important for Bennett, Dagan and other settler leaders. But it seems that now they expect much more from Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
After so many years in power, right-wing leaders expect, or at least pretend to expect, that Israel will start annexing parts of the West Bank, thus breaking the status quo created after the Oslo agreements.
A first sign was given on Sunday when the government approved a draft bill aimed at legalising illegal outposts and settlements built on private Palestinian lands. Netanyahu opposed this move, and Israel general attorney Avichai Mandelblit warned that this new law contradicts the spirit of Israeli law, as well as the international one.
Yet Bennett, supported by ministers from Netanyahu's Likud party, managed to pass it through. Trump's spirit certainly hovers over this law.
Splitting a future Palestine
Yet what is at stake is much more than the fate of a few hundreds houses built on private Palestinian lands. It goes much further.
Caroline Glick, an influential right-wing pundit, recently published a book with the unequivocal Hebrew title, Annexation Now. Its English title is more subtle, The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, yet the content is the same: Israel should extend its full sovereignty and law all over the West Bank. The book had enormous success in right-wing circles.
"Annexing area C means annexing tens of thousands of Palestinians and turning them into Israeli citizens or into second-class apartheid-like residents."
Before the 2012 elections, Bennett published a more conservative version of Glick's full-blown annexation model. According to his "Stability Initiative", Israel should annex all C areas, comprising more than 60 percent of the West Bank, giving full political rights to the 50,000 Palestinians living there (according to other counts, their number amount to 100,000).
Despite the fact that Bennett has served as a member of the Israeli cabinet all these years, he did not really push forward his programme. Now, it appears, a milder initiative is gaining momentum. In July 2016, the chairpersons of all the current coalition parties signed a draft law calling for the annexation of Maale Adumim, a settlement situated between 6 to 15km east of the Green Line.
With its 37,000 population and its proximity to Jerusalem, Maale Adumim, in the eyes of most Israelis, should remain a part of Israel in any future settlement so, for them, this would seem an almost natural step. The proposition is supposed to be brought before the Israeli parliament in the next few weeks.
For the Palestinians - and for most of the international community - this idea is totally unacceptable as it will cut any future Palestinian state in two, separating the southern part of the West Bank from its northern one.
This is exactly why right-wing leaders are pushing for this idea: they know that if Maale Adumim is annexed, "the era of a Palestinian state" will be over, as Bennett is hoping for.
Under the Obama administration, any move towards the annexation of Maale Adumim would have been met with sharp American opposition, including possible sanctions. Under a supportive or even an indifferent Trump administration, such a move might go through much more smoothly.
Here to stay
So the question is will Israel use this opportunity to move towards even a partial annexation of the West Bank, a step it has avoided throughout its nearly 50 years of occupation?
True, Maale Adumim, as well as many of the settlements in the West Bank, has been practically annexed to Israel. Travelling through these settlements, one can hardly notice that they are within an area which is formally under military rule, except for the checkpoints on the way to and from these places.
With their wide roads, which by-pass most Palestinian villages and towns, the residents of these settlements may well forget that they live in an occupied area.
Annexing Maale Adumim or other settlements may still have some practical impact on the everyday lives of their residents. After annexation, building a new neighbourhood may not require the authorisation of the military commander and the minister of defence, but will involve going through a simpler civilian process.
But the real purpose of annexing Maale Adumim is not to make life easier for its residents. The purpose is for Israel to declare that it is here to stay and that the idea of an independent Palestinian state is to be scrapped.
Happiness - and hesitation
Netanyahu and his ministers would be very happy to make such a declaration. Yet there is a price to be paid, even if Trump will not oppose such a move or applaud it: annexing area C means annexing tens of thousands of Palestinians and turning them into Israeli citizens or into second-class apartheid-like residents.
Even the annexation of Maale Adumim, relatively close to Jerusalem, will set Israel on an almost inevitable course towards the one-state solution.
The Palestinians will, of course, oppose such illegal annexation, and will definitely enjoy the almost unanimous support of the international community which is still committed to the two-state solution.
Yet not so deep in their hearts, many Palestinians will feel relieved. First because, with annexation, they will have some rights instead of the zero rights they have now under direct military rule.
And secondly, because so many Palestinians see the one-state solution as the better option, and their numbers are growing by the day - this is exactly the reason why Israel, even with a favourable Trump administration, will hesitate to go this extra mile towards the final burying of the two-state solution.
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