ISRAEL’S Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is in a bind. He prefers the status quo whereby Israel occupies the West Bank, allowing the 2.9m Palestinians there limited autonomy though not a full state. But the settlers’ lobby, which wants to annex “Judea and Samaria” to Israel proper, is crucial to his coalition.
He tried to placate them this week by approving plans for more than 3,000 new homes, mainly in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and the big “settlement blocs” which are expected to be part of Israel in any future peace agreement. But he was only partially successful: one important settlers’ organisation immediately complained that he should have authorized many more buildings.
Mr Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a step which would enrage Arab opinion
Like most other governments, Israel is also trying to work out what Donald Trump’s foreign-policy priorities are, and how that might affect their domestic calculations. One indication of change came on January 24th, when the White House refused to comment on the new settlement plans.
Read more: What Netanyahu wants from Trump
In the past, similar moves were met with automatic condemnation as obstacles to peace. The testy relationship with the former president, Barack Obama, had its uses however—it served as a perfect excuse for Mr Netanyahu to restrain his coalition partners’ enthusiasm for unbridled building and annexation. Now the settlers are convinced that Mr Trump will allow them a free hand.
The uncertainty in Jerusalem
One reason for the uncertainty in Jerusalem is the multiple and conflicting messages arriving from Washington. The settlers have vocal support from members of Mr Trump’s inner circle, especially his new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who heads a settlement fundraising organisation. However, some of the more important appointments, including the incoming (though not yet confirmed) secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, have been careful, at least so far, not to signal a significant shift in policy. Mr Netanyahu has urged his cabinet to avoid policy departures until things are clearer.
US embassy displacement from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
Mr Netanyahu is to meet the new president in Washington next month. His priority will be to use the opportunity of a more amenable administration to re-energise opposition to Iran’s attempts at achieving regional supremacy
Another example is the new administration’s policy on moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Like most countries, America has been wary of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital before conflicting claims to it are settled in a peace agreement. On the campaign trail, however, Mr Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a step which would enrage Arab opinion.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “Our position has always been, and will always be, that the US embassy needs to be here, in Jerusalem.” pic.twitter.com/cIcOLtHYxq
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) January 29, 2017
Since the election, members of his entourage have told Israeli officials that he plans to go ahead with the move, but on January 22nd a White House spokesman said only “we are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject.” Palestinian leaders have also received discreet messages that the embassy will not be moving for now. The only certainty is that the Trump administration does not yet have a settled policy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
Mr Netanyahu is to meet the new president in Washington next month. His priority will be to use the opportunity of a more amenable administration to re-energise opposition to Iran’s attempts at achieving regional supremacy. He may also seek the president’s help in holding back his own supremacists at home.
This piece was published in The Economist.