Sunday, June 18, 2017

Strange story: Trump, Bibi, the IDF and 14,000 homes?

(Last update: June 19, 2017)

When US President Donald Trump left Israel after his first official visit, May 22-23, 2017, most observers came to roughly six conclusions. 

-Trump was optimistic about peace; 

-Trump and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to have a genuine 'like' for each other; and that affection would help Israel; 

-The US Embassy was not going to be moved to Jerusalem; 

-Trump seemed outraged at Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) leader, for lying to Trump when Abbas had visited Washington on May 3, 2017; and that outrage would certainly benefit Israel;  

-Trump had offered no concrete recommendations about how he saw peace negotiations unfolding; and that cautiousness seemed a good sign that Trump wouldn't pressure Israel to surrender land for 'peace' as Obama-Kerry had;

-Trump had said nothing negative about Israel continuing to build Jewish homes in the Jewish-controlled portion of Judea-Samaria  (Area 'C'); that was another good sign for Israel because Obama before Trump seemed always interested in freezing all Jewish building in at least Area 'C'.

Given the pressures and animosity Israel had had to deal with during the Obama administration, this trip by the new President seemed, by and large, a pro-Israel success (despite the disappointment over the failure to get the US Embassy moved to Jerusalem). Most Israelis were pleased, if not ecstatic.

But then, 'troubles' began. Just one day after Trump left Israel, May 24, 2017, a report surfaced in Israel. It suggested the United States had pulled an 'Obama'. That is, the US had told Israel that it should (must?)--as 'a goodwill gesture'--surrender land to the Palestinian Authority (PA) (Alexander Fulbright, "US said pushing Israel to transfer parts of West Bank to PA administrative rule", timesofisrael, May 24, 2017). Moreover, Israel was to do this before any peace negotiations began. According to the same report, the US wanted this done without any concessions asked of the PA. 

With that report, the joy of Trump's visit curdled into something far more sinister: an Obama-style arm-twisting against Israel, as if Israel had sole responsibility for peace, and the PA was so innocent, so needy, it couldn't possibly be asked to make any peace commitments at all. 

Suddenly, this Trump-trip didn't seem like a breathe of fresh air for Israel. It seemed to be Obama redux. This demand sounded familiar--like all the other pressure-Israel tactics used by Obama-Kerry.

Was Trump a neo-Obama in disguise?  

Netanyahu was reported to resist such a demand (ibid). He was said to have no interest in ceding land to the PA (ibid).

That resistance to ceding land seemed to be pure Netanyahu. After all, despite his occasional waffling about 'two-states', he was still the PM who defended the 'settlement enterprise'. 

On May 30, 2017, Netanyahu reinforced that belief. He declared there'll be no peace through the kind of 'land-swap' we'd seen reported (the original report didn't seem to have referred to any 'swap', but an outright transfer; 'land-swap' was the term used by Netanyahu on May 30th) (Ariel Whitman, "Netanyahu: Land swaps with Palestinians won't bring peace, jersualempost, May 30, 2017). That was fine. The unexplained detail about a 'land-swap' was ignored. The point was, the supposed US demand had no legs. It would lead nowhere. 

Two weeks later, Israel walked into an alternative universe, where everything was turned up-side down and nothing made sense. On June 14th, it was announced that the 'Israeli government' would take a unilateral action regarding Palestinians in Area C. In what might well be one of the most unexpected declarations of any recent Israeli government, this announcement said that Israel would build 14,000 homes for Palestinians near a Palestinian-only city called, Qalqilya--which some in Israel call a 'terror' city because of the number of terrorists who've recently come out of Qalqilya to kill Jews (Jacob Magid, et al, "Israeli plan to double size of Qalqilya enrages settler leaders", timesofisrael, June 14, 2017).

This was a stunning announcement. It was a unilateral move by Israel that would double the size of a hostile Palestinian city in Israeli-controlled Area C. It was tantamount to legitimizing a Palestinian presence on Jewish land without any negotiations whatsoever. 

Such a one-sided move reminded many of the Gaza expulsion of 2005 where, in a bid to make a 'gesture' for peace, Israel forcibly removed as many as 10,000 Jews from Gaza, making Gaza Judenrein (Jew-free). 

But Israel didn't get peace. The Palestinian Authority (PA)--and Hamas--didn't see this Jew-expulsion as a peace gesture. They saw is as fear by Israel. They took it to mean that Israel felt weak and vulnerable. They took it to mean more violence would get an even bigger bonus.

That Gaza debacle taught us that a unilateral concession by Israel doesn't make the PA friendlier. For Israel, unilateral  moves have the opposite effect: they give the PA all the proof it needs to see that its intransigence and violence inevitably frightens Israel enough to give the PA something for nothing.

Did this planned 'gift' of 14,000 homes to hostile Palestinians near Qalqilya mean that Israel had learned nothing from the 2005 expulsion?

To astute readers, this seemingly mad decision to build enough homes for perhaps 55,000 Palestinians to move onto Jewish-controlled land wasn't what it seemed. It might be something else: a move by forces within Israel who think Netanyahu's commitment to 'two-states' is weak enough to need some 'extra' help. 

The first hint of this possibility was the observation that the announcement didn't come from Netanyahu. He defended it, yes. But the announcement came from the office of the Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman (ibid). The Times of Israel reported the story that way. The Jerusalem Post put it slightly differently: it suggested the 14,000 homes was an IDF (Israel Defense Force) plan (Tovah Lazaroff, Daniel Roth, "Israel advancing 14,000 Palestinian homes in Area C", June 14, 2017).

To have the Army and the Defense Minister (who controls the Army) involved in building activity in Judea-Samaria (where Area C sits) is not as strange as it sounds. Judea-Samaria is not governed the way the rest of Israel is governed, with a civilian infrastructure. Judea-Samaria is governed by the top military officer in Israel--the Defense Minister--and the army. No building can be done without the signature of the Defense Minister.

There's a political smell here. It's possible that the Defense Minister and the Army have acted on an independent plan to change the realities on the ground with no input from the Prime Minister. That's not planning. It's a court rebellion in the heart of the palace.

When, on Friday, June 16, 2017, an Israeli police officer was murdered by Palestinians in Jerusalem, this story changed course. Perhaps focusing our attention on such terror attacks, Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett has asked, "In light of Palestinian incitement they should not be given the prize of building 14,000 homes" (Herb Keinon, Tovah Lazaroff, "Security cabinet debates  building 14,000 new Palestinian homes in Area C, jerusalempost, june 18, 2017).  

Around here, people respond to that kind of statement. We've seen a lot of terror attacks in the last 21 months. We don't like them. We don't like that the PA does nothing to stop them. We don't like it that the PA glorifies those who kill us. 

Bennett has a point. Why should we offer free gestures to people like that? 

Finally, we get to the strangest part (to date) of this story. Arutz Sheva reported on June 18 that Netanyahu couldn't even remember approving this move (David Rosenberg, "Is PM giving up on plan to expand PA cities?", June 16, 2017). How curious is that?

It may not be that curious at all. A report now circulates that some unidentified members of Israel's 'Security Cabinet' are opposed to this government's declared policies ("Were building incentives for Qalqilya approved underhandedly?", arutzsheva, June 18, 2017). Apparently, it's being suggested, this group saw a chance to get this plan approved 'under the radar screen'. How exactly they did that, no one's saying. But that's why Netanyahu didn't remember it. He wasn't aware he'd been snookered (ibid).

Netanyahu now plans to reconsider this plan (Jacob Magid, et al, "Cabinet reopens debate on expanding Palestinian city", timesofisrael, June 18, 2017). 

At this point, we really don't know what's going on. Is this plan to build for Palestinians in Area C a reaction to the supposed US demand that Israel transfer Area C land directly to Palestinian control? We don't know. Was the report of a US demand actually real--or fakery, used to prepare the way to this plan instead, which could be presented as something better than transferring land? We don't know.

The IDF has been sounding increasingly Leftist lately (Caroline Glick, "Column One: The IDF's new social contract", jerusalempost, January 6, 2017). Some IDF leaders (and many former IDF leaders) want to see a Palestinian state (Anna Ahronheim, Udi Shaham, "IDF Generals launch Arabic campaign for two states", jerusalempost, January 16, 2017) . Are they now trying to use anti-Netanyahu 'friends' in the government to push a plan for Palestinizing Area C without the Prime  Minister's approval?  

We'd better found out.

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