President Trump continues to surprise his critics when it comes to the Middle East. He behaves in a more measured way, carrying out most of his administration’s activities behind the scenes and by maintaining different levels of pressure upon parties on all sides.
And it should be noted – not worrying about breaking or falling short of many of his campaign promises.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been almost the lone voice in the Israeli government, along with Avigdor Lieberman, to have realised that Trump’s election gave Israel an opportunity, but not carte blanche.
Netanyahu, who well understands that negotiations mean give and take, identified the prime issue he sees that faces Israel and has paid a political price internally, for sticking to it without deviation.
The number one issue for Israel is Iran and its potential to produce nuclear weapons.
The number two issue is Iran’s growing influence over the Middle East generally.
Netanyahu, who campaigned heavily and openly against Obama on the P5 + 1 nuclear agreement of July 2015, has endeavoured to, as he said in the US in September, have the US and hopefully the world – “fix it or nix it”.
Indeed, inside Israel, whilst there is a consensus that it is not a good agreement, there is quite a degree of vigorous discussion over whether the deal is better cancelled or improved.
The problem is that improving the deal is very complicated and may or may not be achievable.
The shortcomings of the Iran treaty centre on:
- the lack of confidence in ensuring compliance due to difficulty of access to certain Iranian sites
- the sunset clause which does not bar Iran from nuclear weapons at the end of the agreement
- and the fact that the agreement does not deal with Iran’s non nuclear capabilities.
Trump, who has previously twice certified Iranian compliance, decided on a different course this time – to decertify the deal without yet cancelling it and to throw it back to the US Congress to come up with a way forward in the next sixty days.
President Trump said
“I am directing my administration work closely with Congress and our allies to address the deal’s many serious flaws so that the Iranian regime can never threaten the world with nuclear weapons.”
On Sunday US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the US would
“stay in the nuclear agreement, but aim to make it better.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction was –
“President Trump has just created an opportunity to fix this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression and to confront its criminal support of terrorism.
Nixing the deal means restoring massive pressure on Iran, including crippling sanctions, until Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons capability. Fixing the deal requires many things, among them inspecting military and any other site that is suspect, and penalising Iran for every violation.
Above all, fixing the deal means getting rid of the sunset clause.”
In addition to dealing with the nuclear threat, the prime minister continued:
“We must also stop Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and roll back its growing aggression in the region.”
A further development has been the US decision to pull out of UNESCO at the end of 2018 for amongst other reasons, its “anti Israel bias”, and in general stating it needed “fundamental reform”.
Another reason given was financial – US debt to UNESCO has exceeded $500 million and continued membership adds to its debt.
It should be noted that under President Reagan the US pulled out of UNESCO in 1984 and only rejoined in 2002 under President George W. Bush. Then six years ago under President Obama the US did not withdraw from UNESCO, but withheld funding (about 22% of UNESCO’s total annual budget), when it admitted Palestine as a member.
Immediately following the latest US decision, Israel announced its intention to also withdraw at the end of 2018.
Ironically the next day the new UNESCO head was voted in.
The French Jewish candidate of Moroccan descent, Audrey Azoulay, beat the Qatari candidate for the position.
Israeli Labour Party leader Avi Gabbay, who is from the so called ‘left’ and who is starting to outline his party’s direction into the future said that
“the fact a Jew was voted to be the next UNESCO director should have no bearing on the decision to leave the organisation”.
On Iran and Trump Gabbay said:
“Iran is a real threat to the State of Israel, Obviously Israel cannot allow Iran to reach nuclear capabilities… There is the stage of speeches, and that’s followed by the stage of closed-door diplomacy. I think we need to keep pushing for sanctions, especially on terrorism. I hope Trump would take it that extra step and won’t settle just for speeches.”
Although never directly linked publically by the US administration, Netanyahu has been very clear in cabinet discussions that there is a price to pay – at least for the moment – for such US focus to remain on Iran and the UN.
Two main areas are obvious.
In regards to moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, appearing on former Arkansan Governor Mike Huckabee’s show on October the 7th, President Trump said he will not consider moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem until an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan his administration is working on, is given a chance to succeed.
“I want to give that a shot before I even think about moving the embassy to Jerusalem,”
The second is when it comes to settlements.
There is a real problem in even trying to sort out what is and is not actually happening in this regard.
The building of settlement housing whether in the consensus settlement blocks or in towns outside the blocks, generally requires between 7 and 9 steps of government and administrative approval.
Often for domestic political reasons the Israeli government announces and re announces the very same housing as it moves through the various stages. That is, multiple announcements are about the same apartments.
The other issue is the paving of bypass roads that connect the settlements.
The US reiterated its position this past week saying: “While we are not going to respond to every announcement or report, our policy toward settlements remains unchanged.
The administration has made clear that unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace. At the same time the administration recognises that past demands for a settlement freeze have not helped advance peace talks.”
So to the numbers.
Despite reports of a jump in authorisations for up to 4,000 units, the High Planning Subcommittee whose meetings have been delayed in the past, and assuming they will not be delayed again, will be considering for final approval, exactly 1,196 housing units.
Bypass roads are not currently on the agenda.
Increasingly members of Netanyahu’s own government are speaking out against him and Trump on this issue.
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin criticised the Trump administration over pressure it puts on Israel to cease building in Judea and Samaria.
Elkin said that while the Trump administration was substantially better for Israel than former President Barack Obama generally,
“the only thing that has not changed is the negative way it looks at Israeli construction in Judaea and Samaria. On this issue, the administration continues the tradition of the Obama administration.”
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, also from Likud, criticised the lack of new roads in the building plans and the fact that the government kept postponing construction.
“There were all sorts of promises about construction and roads.
Suddenly the timing is not quite right and we have to wait for further developments and a few other things. I think the timing will never be right.”
Settlement leader Yossi Dagan said:
“talk doesn’t build settlements and words don’t pave roads.
The bypass roads have been promised to us time after time. Promises we have. Roads we do not. The prime minister must commit himself to a clear and imminent date when these bypass roads will be paved”.
Bezalel Smotrich MK, a member of the government coalition from Naphtali Bennett’s party said the advancement of new West Bank settlement construction has slowed under US President Donald Trump in relation to his predecessor Barack Obama.
“We have arrived at a worse situation under the Trump administration than under the Obama administration,”
Smotrich told Israel Radio.
The past weeks have shown that President Trump is willing to provide critical support for Israel, perhaps not quite in the way and to the extent envisaged by some of his supporters, but that there is no blank cheque.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to placate both Trump on the one hand and his own coalition members on the other.
A very difficult and delicate balancing act.