Over the course of the past week, writes Elliott Abrams, the White House’s attitude toward housing construction on the West Bank has become clear. Calling the new approach “sensible, flexible, and realistic,” Abrams cites what is now an unwritten agreement between the U.S. and Israel that limits settlement growth to the major blocs and does not consider Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem “settlements.”
This [agreement] is very close to the Bush-Sharon understandings of 2003 and 2004. . . . The goals are the same: to limit the physical expansion of settlements so that the Israeli footprint in the West Bank does not become larger and larger; to keep most population growth in the larger blocs that will remain with Israel in any final-status agreement; and to prevent this issue from occupying center stage and being a constant irritant to the two governments.
This is smart. The alternative approach, that of the Obama administration under George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and President Obama [himself], was not. By treating all construction—in Jerusalem, the major blocs, and the smallest outlying settlements—identically, Obama’s approach created a huge Israeli consensus against U.S. policy. The Trump approach is politically sensible: most Israelis do not think of construction in Jerusalem or the big settlements like Ma’ale Adumim to be anything like construction in some tiny settlement far beyond the Israeli security barrier. So this deal should be sustainable.
There will no doubt be arguments . . . over some questions: for example, is some new apartment house really as close to the already built-up area as it can be? But in the George W. Bush years, [my administration colleagues and I] dealt with such matters. The prime minister’s office would call, we’d discuss what was planned, and we would not allow these things to sour the terrific relationship between the president and the prime minister, or between the two governments. That’s the way it should be, and that appears to be what President Trump has in mind.