Tel Aviv Diary: Trump Blows Hot and Cold in Israel

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Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Donald Trump in New York on September 25, 2016. Marc Schulman writes that The immigration ban, tied together with the White House’s conscious decision to not mention Jews when commemorating the Holocaust, has brought a very uncomfortable feeling in pit of stomachs of many Israelis. Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office (GPO)/Handout via REUTERS

The Israeli parliament has passed what is known as "the Regularization Law," which retroactively legalizes Israeli settlements built on private Palestinian lands.

The Regularization Law had been opposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu initially, since it violates both Israeli basic law and international law. Moreover, Netanyahu's own attorney general said he could not defend the law in the event it is challenged in Israel's Supreme Court.

The first reading of the law took place in December (Israeli laws must be approved three time before they go into effect). Though Netanyahu convinced those pushing the law—i.e. the far right-wing Bayit Hayehudi party—to wait until President Donald Trump was inaugurated to push for the final passage of the bill.

Netanyahu tried to delay the passage of the law until after his meeting next week with President Trump. However, with a growing expectation that one of the many investigations surrounding the Prime Minister would result in his indictment, his ability to influence events is clearly diminished.

After the vote, MK Bezalel Smotrich thanked the American people for electing Trump as president, "without whom the law would have probably not passed."

While Smotrich was celebrating and thanking Trump, there were conflicting reports about how the Trump administration would receive the new law. Former U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who has remained in Israel for the rest of the year to enable his kids to finish the school year, tweeted, referring to the Trump administration's opinion on the law, "But likely had OK sign from the Trump Administration, or else PM would not have allowed the vote. May be relying on Court overturning."

On the other hand, there were reports from Washington that the administration was not please by being confronted with a fait accompli, right before the Netanyahu visit.

In the last few months since the election, the right-wing in Israel has had only one refrain—just wait until President Obama is no longer in office…then we will be able to finally do what we want to do.

Of course, as is the case with so many things—people often hear what they want to hear. The Israeli right-wing heard President Trump's promises that he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem (which, incidentally, is a move that has been promised by almost every Republican candidate over the course of the last 20 years).

The right-wing heard Trump regularly declare what a pro-Israel candidate he was.

Of course, they heard that David Friedman, who is a very public supporter of the settlements and who has publicly stated he does not believe in the two-state solution would be Trump's new ambassador to Israel.

During the campaign, candidate Trump made comments, time after time, that should have been seen by the Israeli right-wing as warning signs. Trump repeatedly stated that he hoped to get the Palestinians and Israelis to reach an agreement—calling such an agreement "the ultimate deal."

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Last week was a difficult week for the Israeli right-wing. They lost their ongoing battle to stop the evacuation of the settlement in Amona, after the government was forced to implement a Supreme Court ruling that had determined the Amona settlers had illegally taken private Palestinian land and as such, must be evacuated. The new law, had it been previously enacted, would have voided this claim.

To compensate the 40 or so evacuee families and maintain his right-wing coalition the government, Netanyahu announced approval for the building of over 5,000 homes in the West Bank—the largest such announcement in decades.

The White House was taken by surprise by the revelation, and first, in an off-the-record briefing, stated it was not happy with the announcement. After much confusion, the White House then released the following statement on February 2:

The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don't believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.

As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.

The U.S. administration's announcement was interpreted by both political sides through the prism of what they each wanted to hear. Opponents of settlement expansion happily stating the right-wing was mistaken in their glee at the Trump victory and that he would not allow them to do whatever they wish.

The right-wing, on the other hand, looked at the Trump administration's statement as a major change for the better. When interviewed by me yesterday, Marc Zell, co-chairman of Republicans Abroad and a Trump supporter said: "This is a major step forward. This is the first administration to ever state that existing settlements are not an impediment to peace."

Israelis are very divided and quite confused when it comes to the actions of President Trump in his first two weeks in office. On one hand, many are pleased he is taking the Iranian threat seriously and that he recognizes the potential threat of radical Islam. On the other, to many Israelis, the concept of America closing its gates to refugees brings up too many painful images of an earlier time—when it had closed its gates to Jewish refugees.

The immigration ban, tied together with the White House's conscious decision to not mention Jews when commemorating the Holocaust, has brought a very uncomfortable feeling in pit of stomachs of many Israelis. Even the recently released alleged partial listing of terror attacks not fully covered by the media, did not include a single attack perpetrated in Israel.

While Israel claims to have a special relationship with the United States, ultimately Israelis are like the rest of the world—confused, uncertain and worried what effect the Trump presidency will have on Israel.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

Tel Aviv Diary: Trump Blows Hot and Cold in Israel | Opinion