Netanyahu Hopes Trump Is Agreeable

Tribune Washington Bureau
Published: 2/12/2017 9:51:08 PM
Modified: 2/12/2017 9:51:10 PM

Washington — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington Tuesday hoping to find in President Trump to be a kindred spirit and compliant ally after eight years of friction with President Obama.

The reality may be more complicated.

As a candidate, Trump signaled that he would show staunch support for Netanyahu and his allies in Israel in crucial ways, including backing Israel’s growing settlements in the West Bank, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran.

He also hinted that he might reverse decades of U.S. policy by abandoning the search for a two-state peace solution that envisions an Israeli nation and a Palestinian nation living side by side.

But after three rocky weeks in office, Trump has backed down on a raft of foreign policy issues — reaffirming the “one China” policy with Beijing and vowing “strong support” for the NATO military alliance in Europe — and he now appears to be re-evaluating his Israel policy as well.

Trump has backed away from his support for expanding Jewish settlements on disputed land in the Palestinian West Bank, for example.

On Friday, Trump told an Israeli newspaper that “going forward with settlements” is not a “good thing for peace,” a position that puts him far closer to traditional U.S. policy, and to Obama, than before.

Settlements “don’t help the (peace) process. I can say that,” Trump told Israel Today, which supports Netanyahu and is owned by American casino magnate and right-wing activist Sheldon Adelson. “There is (only) so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.”

That appears to put him at odds with Netanyahu, whose government since Trump’s inauguration has approved 6,000 new homes in existing settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

It also may put Trump in conflict with his proposed choice for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a strong advocate and financial backer of the settlements.

Netanyahu may be more interested in talking about Iran than Palestinian peace and moving the U.S. embassy.

Many in Israel’s security establishment have begrudgingly acknowledged that the internationally brokered 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu opposed, has blocked Tehran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb.

But Israel wants Washington to do more to punish Iran for supporting Shiite Muslim militants in Lebanon and elsewhere, testing ballistic missiles and other activities that have kept the region on edge.

“Netanyahu is going with ideas” on Iran, said Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy and a former ambassador to the United States. “The thrust would be to connect the nuclear deal with Iran’s other bad behavior.”

As negotiated by Iran and six world powers, the arms-control deal deliberately focused only on easing the threat of nuclear war, not on lesser dangers. It lifted international sanctions in exchange for Iran freezing its nuclear development program and destroying most of its nuclear infrastructure.

After the agreement was signed, the Obama administration stiffened sanctions on Iran for its support of terrorist groups and its continued development of ballistic missiles. It also signed a 10-year defense deal that provides Israel with $38 billion in security aid.

The Trump administration added new sanctions this month after an Iranian missile test, but publicly acknowledged that it was not trying to undermine the nuclear deal.

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