The United States’ relations with Israel are focused on three questions. The first is, what are Israel’s intentions with respect to the West Bank? The second: Will the approach of the Trump administration be different from that of President Barack Obama? The third is an eternal one – what will be the interplay between Israeli and American policy? It’s a question of global importance.
Evidence that has appeared on all three questions since Trump’s election is unclear. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the building of some 5,000 new Jewish settler residences in the occupied West Bank since then. By making possible increased illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank, the Israeli government is showing it does not intend to clear the decks for a good-faith negotiation with the Palestinians of a two-state resolution of the long-standing issue of the division of the land of the West Bank.
Such an action instead suggests an unstated intention to eventually annex the West Bank to Israel, in spite of international and Palestinian opposition to it as well as the implications of it for Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state. There is also the prospect of unending and violent Middle East conflict, potentially to be avoided by the finding of a home for the Palestinians. This question remains pertinent in spite of estimates of the political future of Netanyahu, accused of corruption.
The second question is what is going on with respect to U.S. Israel policy. That, too, is unclear at this point. Trump’s choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a previous financial contributor to Israeli West Bank settlement. On the other hand, Ambassador Nikki Haley, the new representative at the United Nations, last week declared U.S. opposition to Israel’s new ambitious construction plans in the occupied West Bank.
The Trump administration’s Israel policy may become clearer when Netanyahu visits the U.S. in mid-month, but, as of now, it remains as murky as the question of when America will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as Trump has promised.
The third question is the likely interplay between U.S. policy toward Israel and Israel’s own actions, especially regarding negotiations with the Palestinians about a two-state accord. That turns, in part, on money. The U.S. now provides Israel around $3 billion per year in military aid. Israel sells about $5 billion per year in arms to other countries, including China. Israel doesn’t need the cash, but the symbolism of the military aid remains undiminished as an indicator of U.S. support.
All of these questions are up in the air with a major change of administration and, possibly, policy in Washington. They are not small questions in any way, bearing as they do on America’s posture not only in the Middle East but in the world.