Quarterly Updates for (16 Nov 2016 — 15 Feb 2017)

As protests, random attacks, and resistance activities in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza continued to subside, this quarter the world’s attention turned to Washington, where outgoing U.S. pres. Barack Obama handed over to pres.-elect Trump. Ending mos. of speculation about a last-minute, surprise push on the peace process, the Obama admin. allowed the passage of UNSCR 2334 condemning Israel’s illegal settlement-building by abstaining from the vote. Secy. of State Kerry presented his vision for a final peace agreement, and the U.S. also participated in a peace conference in Paris, which failed to attract Israeli support or do anything to alter the status quo. While these moves may have exacerbated tensions in the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, Israel’s govt. appeared content to wait for Trump’s advent to usher in an era of closer U.S.-Israeli relations, as promised by the then candidate during his campaign.

The Netanyahu govt. continued undermining political opponents, including the Palestinian minority, and cracking down on the waning unrest in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt). The Israeli govt. lifted restraints on settlement growth as soon as Trump took office, and also resumed preliminary efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap with Hamas.



Trump’s election on 11/8 had little effect on the stream of rumors and leaks alleging that the Obama White House was considering a final policy initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to the U.S. abstention on the UNSC vote in 12/2016, senior admin. officials would not be drawn out on the specifics of the debate inside the White House.

U.S. amb. to Israel Dan Shapiro said (11/23) that the admin. remained committed to a negotiated 2-state solution and reaffirmed Obama’s view that the status quo, with Israeli settlements gradually consuming more and more Palestinian land, was “unsustainable.” Secy. Kerry told (11/29) Women’s Foreign Policy Group conferees that there was no way to “force-feed” Israelis and Palestinians a peace agreement, referencing “other things we can do” to work toward a 2-state solution. Off the record, officials were more forthcoming about developments behind the scenes. On 11/16, a senior White House staff mbr. said that Obama was weighing several options, including a major policy speech and support for a UNSC res. condemning Israel’s settlements. The official also noted that the Palestinian leadership had taken steps to reduce alleged incitement in response to U.S. complaints, while the Israeli govt. had done nothing to curb settlement growth.

Early in 12/2016, an Israel Army Radio host explicitly asked (12/1) U.S. amb. Shapiro what the Obama admin. would do in the event of a UNSC measure such as the one the Palestinians and their allies had been pursuing throughout most of 2016 (see JPS 45 [3] – 46 [2]). Reiterating the admin.’s standard position, Shapiro stated, “We will always oppose unilateral proposals,” prompting speculation about the Obama admin.’s definition of “unilateral.” That same day, unnamed U.S. officials told the Associated Press that internal discussions of a UNSC res. or major policy speech had died down after Trump’s election and that Obama practically ruled out any lastminute effort to avoid another high-profile conflict with Netanyahu.

U.S. Abstention at the UNSC

At the UN, meanwhile, Palestinians and their allies were working on a draft res. condemning Israeli settlement building. The same day that Palestinian Authority (PA) FM Riyad al-Maliki confirmed (11/28) that the Palestinians planned to submit the measure imminently, Netanyahu said he expected Obama to oppose any new UNSC initiative. Res. efforts continued gaining momentum, however, and not just among the Palestinians’ closest allies.

New Zealand began circulating its own draft res. to other mbrs. of the UNSC in early 12/2016, the final mo. of its 2-year term on the council (Jerusalem Post, 12/11). The measure called for a “firm timetable” to return to negotiations, an end to Israel’s settlement enterprise and alleged Palestinian incitement, and for preventing either side from setting “preconditions” on talks. New Zealand’s envoys had raised the possibility of a UNSC res. in 4/2016 and 10/2016 (see JPS 44 [4] and 45 [2]), to no avail. This quarter’s action followed on a conversation on the subject between FM Murray McCully and Kerry in Wellington on 11/13, after which McCully met with Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli leaders on a trip to the region in 11/2016. When news of the New Zealand draft res. broke on 12/11, Israeli amb. to the UN Danny Danon condemned the initiative. “New Zealand is leaving the UNSC and they have a desire to do something,” he said. “I told them that we will remain here with the Palestinians after [12/2016], and that it is important that everything that is done be constructive and not give the Palestinians encouragement to go to the international community rather than talk to us.”

The New Zealand initiative encouraged the Palestinians to make their move. The PA sent a delegation led by Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) secy.-gen. Saeb Erekat to Washington to discuss the possibility of a UNSC res. condemning Israel’s settlement enterprise a week after the Brookings Institution published (12/4) a survey showing that almost half of the U.S. population would support the Obama admin. backing such a res. The delegation sought to draft a res. the Obama admin. could get behind and built on a draft that Washington had vetoed in 2/2011, according to the Jerusalem Post (see Doc. A4 in JPS 40 [3]). Prior to their trip, a Western diplomat had stated (12/10), “If the Palestinians act wisely and rationally they have a chance.” After the Palestinians met with U.S. officials in Washington on 12/12 and 12/13, however, neither party mentioned the UNSC, and a State Dept. spokesperson stated (12/13) that “nothing’s changed about our view on [the subject.]”

A week later, Egyptian diplomats formally presented (12/21) the UNSC with a draft res. expressing “grave concern” about Israel’s settlement activities; condemning all measures “aimed at altering the demographic composition, character, and status” of the oPt; and calling for “affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse the negative trends,” including settlement growth. The UNSC then scheduled a vote for 12/22, sparking 24 hours of frenzied diplomacy. After the White House and State Dept. chose not to comment on the draft, several diplomatic sources told NBC News that the Obama admin. was planning to abstain. Netanyahu quickly cleared his schedule to lobby the UNSC full-time. He reached out to pres.- elect Trump for help to block the initiative (Trump later issued a statement calling on Obama to oppose the res. and spoke with Egypt’s Pres. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi by phone). Following high-level contacts between Cairo and Tel Aviv, 2 unidentified Western diplomats were quoted as stating that the vote had been indefinitely postponed. One said (12/22) that Egypt “caved” to Israeli pressure. Danon, for his part, indicated that the UNSC affair was “not yet resolved.”

Israel’s seeming victory was short-lived. On 12/23, Reuters reported that 4 UNSC mbrs.— New Zealand, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Senegal—had given Egypt an ultimatum of just a few hours: if they didn’t call for a vote by 12/23, the report quoted them as saying, the 4 countries involved reserved the right to submit the draft themselves. The Palestinians endorsed the move and reportedly sent a message to Egypt expressing a “strong sense of disappointment” with the postponement. Egypt chose not to call for a vote, and the 4 UNSC mbrs. made good on their promise. They submitted the Egyptian draft themselves and called for a vote on 12/23.

The UNSC then passed Res. 2334 with 14 votes in favor and 1 abstention, by the U.S. Erekat declared (12/23) a “day of victory”; PA pres. Mahmoud Abbas said (12/25) that although the res. did not “solve the Palestinian problem,” it “define[d]” it while Hamas leader Khalid Mishal asserted (12/25) that despite the fact that it was “not enough,” the res. gave the world a true picture of the situation with the settlements; U.S. amb. to the UN Samantha Power explained that the Obama admin. abstained because the draft was consistent with its views on Israel’s settlements. Meanwhile, Trump tweeted (12/23) that “things will be different after 1/20,” i.e., Inauguration Day.

Netanyahu and his govt. were apoplectic. One Israeli official had characterized (12/22) Obama’s rumored decision to abstain as a “diplomatic hit” against Israel, and Netanyahu released (12/23) a statement reiterating his conditional support for a 2-state solution and rejecting the UN res. He also accused Obama of “colluding” with “this gang-up” at the UNSC, and set in motion retaliatory measures against the countries supporting the res. These included ordering (12/23) Israel’s ambs. to New Zealand and Senegal to return to Jerusalem (there were no ambs. in Venezuela and Malaysia to recall); canceling (12/23) the Senegalese FM’s upcoming visit to Israel; and instructing (12/23) the Foreign Ministry to suspend all Israeli aid to Senegal.

As the Netanyahu govt. escalated its response to UNSCR 2334, Israeli officials echoed the PM’s accusations against the Obama admin. On 12/26, Israeli amb. to the U.S. Ron Dermer called it “a sad day and a shameful chapter in U.S.-Israeli relations,” adding that the Israeli govt. had collected evidence to substantiate Netanyahu’s accusations against Obama. “We will present this evidence to the [Trump admin.] through the appropriate channels,” he said, “and if they want to share it with the [U.S.] people, they are welcome to do it.” The next day, a document purporting to offer evidence that the Obama admin. had coordinated with the Palestinians was leaked to the Egyptian press: it described a meeting between Palestinian officials and Secy. Kerry and U.S. national security advisor Susan Rice in Washington in mid-12/2016. Supposedly, the officials told the Palestinians that the U.S. would not veto an anti-settlement res. if the wording was balanced. While confirming (12/27) that the meeting did take place, Erekat and U.S. State Dept. officials said that the leaked minutes were fabricated.

Meanwhile, UK officials all but took responsibility for organizing the anti-settlement res. Undermining Netanyahu’s accusations, on 12/29, a senior UK official said it was“in effect a British resolution.” The Guardian reported (12/28) that the UK “played a key behind-thescenes role.” Weeks later, Foreign Secy. Boris Johnson confirmed (1/10) that the UK was “closely involved in drafting” the res., and that PM Theresa May’s govt. supported it “only because it contained new language pointing out the infamy of terrorism that Israel suffers every day” (see Chronology for details).

Although UNSCR 2334 provided no enforcement mechanisms and entailed no practical consequences for Israel, Tel Aviv wasted no time ramping up its retaliatory campaign over the following weeks. Netanyahu summoned (12/25) Shapiro for an explanation of the Obama admin.’s position; ordered (12/25) the Foreign Ministry to downgrade Israel’s relations with 12 of the countries that supported the res.; suspended (12/27) all development aid to Angola for its favorable stance; and permanently downgraded relations with Senegal and New Zealand by deciding not to return Israel’s ambs. to Dakar and Wellington (Times of Israel, 2/10). Furthermore, Israel’s UN mission announced (1/6) that the country was cutting $6 m. from its planned 2017 commitment to the UN, a sum claimed to represent the portion of Israel’s annual $40 m. pledge going to “anti-Israel bodies.” Meanwhile, Israeli DM Avigdor Lieberman ordered (12/25) the reduction of civil and diplomatic ties with the PA, a move that could affect West Bank infrastructure projects and measures to increase work permits for West Bank Palestinians.

Israel’s top officials were worried that the Obama admin. had further plans afoot. At the 1st cabinet meeting after the res.’s passage, they discussed (12/25) the possibility that Kerry might use the planned 1/2017 French peace conference as an opportunity to lay out his vision for a peace agreement and expressing concern that participants might codify his vision into another UNSC res. For their part, the Palestinians said they hoped to build on UNSCR 2334: Erekat indicated (12/26) that they were planning additional measures, including lawsuits at the International Criminal Court (ICC) as well as new efforts in other UN agencies and bodies.

The Obama Administration’s Parting Message

Hours after the UNSC passed Res. 2334, Kerry announced plans to “speak further to the vote . . . and share more detailed thoughts, drawn from the experience of the last several years, on the way ahead.” His statement was interpreted as confirming rumors that Obama intended for Kerry to present the conclusions his admin. had drawn from the failed attempt at peace talks in late 2013 and early 2014 (see JPS 43 [3, 4]).

As the date (12/28) of the speech approached, U.S. diplomats worked behind the scenes to make sure Kerry’s presentation would have the desired effect. On 12/27, Russia’s FM Sergey Lavrov reportedly rejected Kerry’s request for the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., EU, UN, and Russia) to adopt the principles he planned to present. Meanwhile, State Dept. officials clarified (12/27) that the Obama admin. was not planning any further action at the UNSC based on Kerry’s speech.

From the State Dept. podium in Washington, Kerry reiterated (12/28) many of the Obama admin.’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, criticizing both Israeli settlement growth and alleged Palestinian incitement. Kerry focused on the settlements, citing the so-called Regulations Bill percolating through the Knesset (see “Settlement Fracas,” below) and identifying settlement growth as the main obstacles to a 2-state solution. Kerry concluded by laying out 6 principles for a hypothetical final-status agreement: internationally recognized borders based on the pre-1967 borders; 2 states with mutual recognition and equal rights for all citizens; a “just, agreed, fair, and realistic solution” for Palestinian refugees; Jerusalem as the capital of both states, with freedom of access to holy sites; an end to the Israeli occupation; and a res. for all outstanding claims and normalized relations under the Arab Peace Initiative (see JPS 31 [4]).

The response to Kerry’s speech was expectedly mixed. Netanyahu called (12/28) it a “big disappointment” and reiterated his desire for Israel-U.S. relations to improve under Trump. He also called on the Obama admin. to block any effort at the UN to adopt the Kerry principles. Trump himself tweeted (12/28), “Stay strong, Israel, [1/20] is approaching fast.” Abbas welcomed (12/28) the speech and reiterated his terms for restarting peace talks with the Israelis: freeze settlement growth, release the prisoners that were supposed to be freed in connection with the last round of talks in 3–4/2014, and uphold previous agreements. Finally, U.S. dep. national security advisor Ben Rhodes repeated (12/29) that the Obama admin. had no plans to introduce the Kerry principles into a new UN measure, allowing the focus to shift to a planned peace conference in Paris in 1/2017.

Peace Conference in Paris  

A French initiative to gather the international community with a view to resuming IsraeliPalestinian peace talks concluded this quarter. Announced in early 2015 by then-FM Laurent Fabius (see JPS 44 [4]–46 [1]), the aims of the conference were scuttled by Netanyahu’s persistent refusal to participate, Washington’s lack of enthusiasm, and the uncertainty introduced by Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency.

On 11/17, Pres. François Hollande stated, “The chances to hold the peace conference in Paris are not good,” and a Western official related that (11/20) Hollande had decided to freeze the initiative. State Dept. officials were “not enthusiastic about the idea,” and “believed nothing would come out of it due to its nature and Israel’s refusal to attend.” Although French officials denied (11/20) the report and the French govt. set 12/21 as a date for the summit, a sense of pessimism shrouded their plans.

Hollande then tried to sidestep the issues plaguing the initiative, inviting Abbas and Netanyahu to a tripartite summit as a follow-on to the conference, according to a senior Israeli official on 12/6. Hollande reportedly hoped to present them with the conclusions of the conference and recommendations from the working groups formed at the previous conference on 6/3/2016 (see JPS 46 [1]). Netanyahu rejected Hollande’s invitation (12/7), offering to meet with Abbas only if Hollande canceled the conference, but Hollande demurred. A week later, Palestinian amb. to France Salman al-Herfi said that the French had postponed the conference until at least 1/2017. French FM Jean-Marc Ayrault then set 1/15 as a new date.

In the wake of UNSCR 2334’s passage and Kerry’s speech delineating his 6 principles, Netanyahu shifted from a passive rejection of French efforts to a more active stance. Fearing another UNSC res. or even formal sanction, he told (1/13) several Israeli ambs. that there were “strong signals” that the 1/15 conference might be followed up by another UNSC res. or a Quartet statement. The following week, he said (1/8) that Israeli diplomats were making “very big efforts” at preventing those outcomes.

Reps. from more than 70 countries, including the U.S., gathered in Paris on 1/15. After reportedly intense negotiations, the conferees unanimously agreed to a joint declaration calling on both the Palestinians and Israelis to officially restate their commitment to a 2-state solution, and to demonstrate this commitment through policies and actions, including welcoming the prospect of closer cooperation between the Quartet and the Arab League, and agreeing to meet again within a year with a view to “advancing the 2-state solution through negotiations.” Kerry called Netanyahu in the middle of the conference to describe his efforts aimed at softening the final statement’s wording. According to sources close to the negotiations, the concluding statement was therefore more timid than some participants would have liked.

The follow-up efforts feared by the Israelis never came to pass. A senior diplomat reportedly approached Kerry before the conference to ask if he would be willing to bring the joint declaration to the UNSC for adoption, but the U.S. diplomat declined, opting instead to build consensus on the principles he presented on 12/28 (Haaretz, 1/20). Furthermore, the UK blocked the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council from adopting the joint declaration on 1/16. PM May sent only lowlevel diplomats to the 1/15 conference, reportedly as a gesture of solidarity with Trump, whose inauguration was only 5 days away. A UK spokesperson also explained their decision not to sign onto the joint declaration, saying that London had “particular reservations” since neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis had attended.

Settlement Fracas

As the quarter opened, Israeli settlers and their allies in the Knesset were increasingly agitated about the evacuation and demolition of the Amona settlement outpost, which the High Court of Justice had ordered to commence by 12/25. In the interests of strengthening and expanding the overall settlement enterprise, they explored numerous means of delaying or averting the order. But as the Obama admin. ratcheted up anti-settlement rhetoric in its final mos. (see “U.S. Abstention at the UNSC” and “The Obama Administration’s Parting Message” above). Netanyahu persuaded them to delay their efforts until a friendlier U.S. admin. was in place.

At the very end of the previous quarter, on 11/14, Israel’s High Court of Justice had reaffirmed its evacuation and demolition order regarding Amona, on the grounds that the illegal settlement outpost was built on private Palestinian land. In response, key settlement partisans, including Education Min. Naftali Bennett and Justice Min. Ayelet Shaked, had secured the support of Kulanu party chair Moshe Kahlon to compel the Knesset to pass (11/16) the 1st reading of their so-called Regulations Bill. The measure retroactively legalized all 232 West Bank settlement outposts (including Amona)—established with the state’s involvement despite their so-called illegality— and called for compensating Palestinian landowners by paying them 125% of the govt. assessed value of their land.

The settlers’ strength in the Knesset put Netanyahu in a difficult position as Jewish Home Knesset mbrs. (MKs) held 8 of the coalition’s slim 61-seat majority. The PM could neither afford to reject their demands, if it meant replacing Jewish Home party seats, nor could he give in to them without risking a severe backlash from the international community. Further complicating the situation, Israel’s Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit repeatedly pledged not to defend the bill on the govt.’s behalf should it be passed and then challenged at the High Court.

After mos. of deliberations and delays, Netanyahu appeared to settle the issue on 12/4. First, he obtained Mandelblit’s approval for a plan to relocate the 40-odd families living in Amona to a nearby plot of “abandoned” land. Second, he announced that he would petition the High Court of Justice for a 30-day stay of execution on the evacuation order to give the govt. time to prepare alternative housing for Amona’s residents. Third, he brokered a deal between Bennett and Kahlon on the Regulations Bill, removing Clause 7 that specifically addressed Amona (the bill would still retroactively authorize approximately 4,000 settler residences). The new draft passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset on 12/5 and its 1st reading on 12/7.

In decoupling Amona from the bill, Netanyahu was able to gain both time and political cover. On 12/7, Bennett declared that the Knesset would not move on the bill until Trump came into office and an Israeli govt. source confirmed his statement (12/22) by saying that Netanyahu had placed a hold on all “controversial” legislation until Trump took over.

As a result, the political focus in Israel shifted away from the Regulations Bill to the Amona outpost. Opposing the deal and accusing (12/5) Bennett of “folding,” Amona’s residents refused the govt.’s offer to move them to a nearby plot of vacant land and started stockpiling supplies for a potential conflict with demolition crews. Meanwhile, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Yesh Din was working to avert the govt.’s relocation plan, helping 4 Palestinians who had fled the proposed site in 1967 to advance their ownership claims through the courts on 12/5.

Bennett announced a breakthrough on 12/12. He said that he had reached a new deal with Netanyahu that would allow the residents of Amona to “remain on their hilltop,” despite Yesh Din’s legal moves to block the relocation plan. Some of the settlers would be given temporary permits to live on the new land, with options to renew every 2 years, and all residents would receive compensation equal to the value of their homes if they signed a formal pledge to leave Amona in peace. Although some of Amona’s residents said (12/13) they were tentatively hopeful, the community as a whole voted (12/14) against the deal, fearing that the relocation plan could get bogged down in the courts. After Netanyahu appeased the rightwing mbrs. of his coalition by advancing (12/15) demolition orders for Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and hundreds of settlers flocked (12/16) to Amona to join protests against the evacuation, Amona’s leaders and govt. officials worked out a new agreement (12/18). In exchange for a 1-mo. stay on the High Court’s demolition order, Amona’s residents accepted a plan (12/18) that would allow 24 of the 40-odd families to relocate to nearby plots of land, up from the 12 provided for under the previous deal.

Yesh Din then filed (12/19) a motion with Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property insisting on the illegality of the relocation plan, and the Palestinian mayor of Silwad, a village close to Amona, reaffirmed that Palestinian landowners had claimed the land while the Israeli govt. proceeded with the compromise deal worked out with Bennett. The High Court of Justice then approved (12/21) the govt.’s request for a 45-day postponement and called on Amona’s residents to file a formal pledge to evacuate their homes without violence or any other forms of resistance, which they delivered on 12/22. As the 12/25 Amona demolition deadline approached, the govt. explored other options, including moving Amona’s residents to the Ofra settlement, but none materialized.



Both during the campaign and in the postelection transition period, Trump made numerous conflicting and hyperbolic statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He pledged to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, promised to usher in a new era of friendlier relations with Israel, offered Israel stronger diplomatic cover internationally, and said he would “love to be the one who made peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” calling it a “great achievement.” Although his 1st term in office was not even 1 mo. old by the time this quarter ended, Trump had already started backpedaling on at least 1 of those promises. His admin.’s consistent proIsrael and prosettlement rhetoric and appointments, however, signaled significant departures from long-standing U.S. policy.

Settlement Growth and the Future of the Two-State Solution

Trump was sworn in as the 45th pres. of the U.S. on 1/20 in front of a crowd of thousands of supporters outside the Capitol Building in Washington, including a number of Israeli settler leaders who flew into the U.S. especially for the occasion.

Two days after the inauguration, Trump and Netanyahu had their 1st official phone call. Trump invited the Israeli PM to come to Washington in early 2/2017 and said that “peace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the parties,” echoing his interlocutor’s position vis-à-vis efforts to internationalize the peace negotiations. The PM’s office described the conversation as “very warm,” perhaps a veiled allusion to the starkly contrasting chilly ObamaNetanyahu relationship, and the White House later announced that Trump would welcome Netanyahu in Washington on 2/15.

Ultranationalist Israeli lawmakers were enthusiastic about working with a U.S. pres. who appeared ready to support their efforts. In addition to resuming work on the Regulations Bill (see “The ‘Regulations’ Bill” below), they also began talking about annexing the Ma’ale Adumim settlement bloc. Netanyahu cautioned (1/20) Bennett against pushing for a vote on such a move, reportedly warning the education min. that Trump’s advisors had told him to avoid unilateral steps until after the 2/15 meeting.

Nevertheless, short of formally annexing West Bank settlements, over the following weeks Netanyahu ceded ground to Bennett and his pro-settler cohort. Netanyahu promised (1/22) to lift political restrictions on settlement construction in East Jerusalem if Bennett and his allies agreed to postpone the Ma’ale Adumim vote. The Jerusalem Municipality then advanced (1/22) plans for 566 new settler residences across East Jerusalem and 153 residences (1/26) in the Gilo settlement. On 1/22, a group of Likud MKs pressed him on the question of a 2-state solution. “What I’m willing to give the Palestinians is not exactly a country with all the powers,” he responded, “but a ‘stateminus’ and that’s why the Palestinians don’t agree [to it].” He also warned them that positive relations with a Trump-led U.S. were not guaranteed, despite the new U.S. pres.’s support for Israel. “The diplomatic issue is a very important subject, presenting opportunities that could easily be squandered by thoughtless actions,” he said. “In this reality, it is easily possible to lose the moment and to turn the relationship in a direction that would not serve Israel’s aims.”

Netanyahu then tested his own proposition. He and Lieberman approved (1/24) the planning and construction of 2,500 new residences in West Bank settlements, including 10 in Beit El, located outside major settlement blocs. When the Trump admin. did not join the chorus of criticism and condemnation by the rest of the international community, he and Lieberman approved (1/31) another 3,000 settler residences, including 2,000 to begin immediate construction. The 2d announcement on 1/26 elicited the 1st official statement on the issue of settlements by the Trump White House. Press Secy. Sean Spicer said (2/2), “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.” He added, “The Trump admin. has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with PM Netanyahu when he visits with Pres. Trump [on 2/15].”

Although the Israeli govt. made no more major settlement announcements through the end of the quarter, Israeli officials did try to control the narrative leading up to the 2/15 meeting. Danon attempted (2/3) to downplay Spicer’s statement, saying that it was not a “U-turn,” and that what Spicer really meant was simply “wait until the [2/15] meeting.” A spokesperson for the Yesha Council, a settlement umbrella organization, took a different tack, thanking (2/3) the White House for “asserting that our communities were never an impediment to peace” and saying, “We look forward to working closely with our friends in the new Trump admin. to build a brighter future for all.” Later, Haaretz reported (2/10) on a growing movement among right-wing Israeli politicians to push Netanyahu to use Trump’s election to abandon the 2-state solution entirely. Public Security Min. Gilad Erdan (Likud) declared (2/13), “We have a historical opportunity to begin a new era” and “no one [in Israel’s cabinet] thinks that in the next few years a Palestinian state is something that, God forbid, might and should happen.” Pres. Reuven Rivlin chimed in, calling for the Israeli govt. to annex all the West Bank and to give its Palestinian residents full Israeli citizenship (see “Neither Two States nor One” by Seth Anziska, also in this issue).

Days before the 2/15 meeting, Trump elaborated (2/10) on his position in an interview with the pro-Netanyahu Israeli newspaperIsrael HaYom. He called on Israel to “act reasonably,” said he did not believe “that advancing settlements is good for peace,” and announced that his team was “examining a number of options.” Days later, a senior U.S. official said (2/14) that achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement was high on Trump’s list of priorities, but that the 2-state solution was ill-defined and Trump would not limit the parties to it. “We’re looking at the 2 sides to come together to make peace,” the official said. “We’re not going to dictate what the terms of peace will be.”

When Trump met with Netanyahu, though, he shifted the U.S. position closer to Israel’s right wing. Although he reiterated that both sides would need to make concessions to reach a final agreement and said he would like to see Netanyahu “hold back on settlements for a little bit,” Trump stated that he was “looking at 2 states or 1 state” and that he “like[d] the one that both parties like,” but that he could “live with either one.” Netanyahu responded to Trump’s break with long-standing U.S. policy, saying that he preferred to deal with the “substance” of the situation, rather than “labels.” The 2 leaders discussed a “regional” approach to peace that would “take in many, many countries” and be “a terrific thing,” according to Trump.


With Trump ensconced in the White House after 1/20, the Knesset’s pro-settler contingent revived the so-called Regulations Bill. Netanyahu, however, was less enthusiastic this time around, apparently harboring 2d thoughts about the bill after the passage of UNSCR 2334, according to senior Israeli officials (1/10). On 1/9, Lieberman said, “It seems the law will not be passed,” and the PM confirmed the speculation at a weekly cabinet meeting on 1/22, arguing that the bill could lead to more international blowback against Israel and that it would be “irresponsible” to pursue it further

Despite his efforts to amend and delay the bill, the same bloc of Jewish Home and Likud MKs that had forced Netanyahu’s hand earlier again pressed him to advance the bill (see JPS 46 [2]). The Knesset ultimately passed the bill into law on 2/6 by a slim majority: 60 votes in favor and 52 against. The law retroactively authorized settlements built “in good faith or at the state’s instruction” on privately owned Palestinian land, thereby allowing the govt. to deny Palestinian landowners the right to claim or retake possession of land being used for settlements or outposts“until there is a diplomatic resolution to the status of [the West Bank].”

Netanyahu briefed the Trump admin. prior to the vote, and although U.S. officials reportedly pushed for the vote to be delayed until after the 2/15 meeting, the Trump admin. opted not to comment on the bill. The Palestinians, the international community, and human rights groups, however, formally protested and criticized the bill. Erekat said (2/6) that it was “overdue time to stop treating Israel as a state above the law,” and Abbas indicated (2/7) that the Palestinian leadership would challenge the law in international courts. A group of Palestinian municipalities and human rights groups jointly petitioned (2/8) Israel’s High Court of Justice to annul the law. The Israeli NGO Peace Now also promised (2/6) to challenge it at the High Court. Mandelblit was reportedly considering (2/7) arguing against it at the High Court instead of taking the side of the govt. The EU postponed (2/7) a planned 2/28 EU-Israel summit indefinitely after several mbr. states reportedly opposed holding the meeting.


On 1/22, a little over 2 weeks before the court-ordered demolition of their homes that was delayed to 2/8, the residents of Amona sent a letter to Netanyahu and Bennett informing them that they were retracting their pledge to evacuate peacefully because the govt. had reneged on its side of the 12/18 compromise (see above). The High Court backed the govt.’s decision, ordering (1/23) a temporary suspension of the relocation plan while the Palestinian claims on the relocation site were litigated.

With chances for a peaceful compromise erased, tensions and the possibility of a violent confrontation grew. After mobilizing several battalions for the demolition operation, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) ordered (1/31) Amona’s residents to leave their homes within 48 hours. Hundreds of settler youths gathered at Amona over the next 2 days and clashed with the IDF troops sent to evacuate the outpost overnight on 2/1. Approximately 9 of the 40-odd families left peacefully, but 24 Israeli soldiers and 2 protesters were injured, and 13 settlers were arrested. Meanwhile, Netanyahu announced (2/1) that he had taken preliminary steps to establish an entirely new settlement to house the settlers by the end of 3/2017. The Amona community voted to accept his plan, even though some settlers continued to defy the IDF with violence (8 more IDF soldiers were injured during the takeover of the outpost’s barricaded synagogue on 2/2). Later, the settlers voted (2/8) to move temporarily to the Geulat Tzion settlement outpost in the Shiloh settlement bloc.

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

By moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the U.S. would effectively convey its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, undermining Palestinian claims to the city, and stoking tensions across the Middle East. Previous presidents, including George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, had also promised to relocate the embassy during their electoral campaigns, but each abandoned the notion upon taking office and gaining a better understanding of the move’s implications. Like his predecessors, Trump demonstrated his pro-Israel bona fides on the campaign trail and during his transition period by pledging to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem but as soon as he took office, talk of relocating the embassy ended (see “The Ownership of the U.S. Embassy Site in Jerusalem” in JPS 29 [4] for more on this issue).

Trump’s change of mind began almost simultaneously with his move into the White House. On 1/22, after Trump’s call with Netanyahu, Spicer said that the admin. was “at the very beginning stages of even discussing” the move. The next day, he said, “There’s no decision yet.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinians and their allies in the Middle East were frantically working to dissuade Trump from following through on his promise. Pres. Abbas met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman on 1/22, and they agreed to “take a number of measures” if the embassy were relocated, according to the Palestine News Agency. Fatah Central Comm. mbr. Nasser al-Qudwa said (1/23) that the Palestinians might downgrade relations with the U.S. if the relocation took place. “In addition to that,” he added, “there is the issue of the Palestinian political rep.’s office in Washington. It would be necessary to close [it].” According to reports, Abbas (1/25) personally sent Trump a missive on the matter, and the Palestinians pressured Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the EU into sending Trump similar messages, urging him to hold off. Erekat said (1/26) that the Palestinians had decided on a course of action whereby they would revoke the PLO’s 1993 recognition of Israel; annul previous agreements with Israel— putting the Israeli govt. in the position of administering services in the West Bank and Gaza; and call on the UN to suspend Israel’s membership.

On the Israeli side, talk of a proposed embassy move was equally disruptive. Although many Israeli lawmakers supported the move, the cochair of the Israel branch of [U.S.] Republicans Overseas, Marc Zell, said (1/28) that Trump was “proceeding cautiously because of concerns raised by Israeli officials.” However, Netanyahu rejected (1/29) Zell’s comments and reaffirmed that he wanted to see the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem.

Although Trump himself continued to be noncommittal on the subject, concern was palpable on the part of the Palestinians and others. Abdullah flew to Washington for an unscheduled visit in early 2/2017 to meet with Trump and help slow or halt the embassy move. In its coverage of the trip, the New York Times reported (2/9) that senior White House advisor and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner had been meeting with reps. of various Arab states in 1–2/2017, and that he had come to favor an “outside-in” approach to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—a reference to Netanyahu’s preferred strategy of privileging Israeli relations with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt and sidelining the Palestinians. Since this strategy would require friendly relations between Israel, the U.S., Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, Abdullah’s plea reportedly carried additional weight with the Trump admin.

By the end of the quarter it was unclear where Trump stood on the issue, but al-Quds reported (2/11) that the incoming admin. had communicated to the PA that he was seriously considering not moving the embassy.

Sidelining the Palestinians

The Palestinians were further distressed by Trump’s pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem because of the incoming admin.’s lack of communication with them in the weeks following the inauguration. In an interview with Newsweek on 1/31, Erekat said that the Palestinians sent many messages to Trump admin. officials, including Kushner, whom Trump had appointed to oversee the Middle East peace dossier, but “they don’t even bother to respond to us. . . . I don’t know [Kushner]. I don’t know any of them.” Furthermore, Trump’s rep. for international negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, told (2/3) a group of Palestinian businessmen that the Trump admin. had no intention of engaging with the Palestinians until after Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu on 2/15.

Despite the lack of official contact, Western and Arab diplomatic sources said (2/1) that the Trump admin. had made clear to the Palestinians that if they filed lawsuits in international courts against Israel in response to settlement growth, the embassy relocation, or any other move, the U.S. would retaliate with measures that could include the closure of the PLO office in Washington and a suspension of aid. The Trump admin. was also preparing an executive order, titled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations,” which would suspend U.S. funding to the UN or any other international organizations that gave full membership to the PA or PLO, as well as programs that funded abortion or circumvented sanctions against Iran and North Korea (New York Times, 1/25). The order also called for at least a 40% reduction in U.S. aid to international bodies such as the ICC, and the establishment of a comm. to implement those cuts.

Following the Abdullah-Trump meeting on 2/2, the tenor of relations changed. PA FM al-Maliki indicated (2/6) that preliminary talks between Trump admin. officials and the PA had taken place in recent days, and that the U.S. reps. intended to initiate a formal dialogue. PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj then led a delegation of Palestinian officials to Washington for face-to-face talks with Trump admin. officials on 2/8 and 2/9. PA sources said (2/10) that it was a “very important 1st step” and a “serious dialogue.” Upon his return, Faraj was reportedly able to relay reassuring messages to Abbas about Trump’s position on the settlements, the 2-state solution, and the embassy move. The PA pres. then met with new CIA dir. Mike Pompeo in Ramallah on 2/14.

As Faraj returned to the PA capital, the Trump admin. made an unexpected and potentially antagonistic move vis-à-vis the Palestinians. U.S. amb. to the UN Nikki Haley released a statement (2/10) saying that the U.S. was “disappointed” by the UN’s proposed appointment of former PA PM Salam Fayyad to lead the UN political mission in Libya. Signaling the Trump admin.’s intention to block the appointment, Haley wrote that the UN had been “unfairly biased in favor of the PA for too long.” Rather than cite specific objections to Fayyad, Haley merely referred to him as a Palestinian national and a rep. of the Palestinian people. Fayyad, who is widely respected in UN circles, was held in high regard by the U.S., UK, and other Western govts. when he served as PM from 2007 to 2013. The UNSC then released (2/11) a statement criticizing Haley and stating that Fayyad’s appointment was “solely based on [his] recognized personal qualities and his competence for that position.” The PLO called (2/11) Haley’s statement a “case of blatant discrimination on the basis of national identity.”



In the final week of the quarter, Netanyahu posted (2/10) a video on his Facebook page proudly defending his record promoting and integrating the Palestinian minority in Israel into Israel’s economy. In the video, the PM claims that his govt. has made “tireless” efforts to ensure that “minorities thrive” in Israel, citing the increasing number of Palestinian judges, and the growing ranks of Palestinian students at Technion, among other statistics and achievements. Throughout the quarter, however, the Netanyahu govt. scapegoated the Palestinian minority in Israel, targeting it with further discriminatory legislation, and worked to undermine organizations and individuals associated with the Israeli Left.

The Ghattas Investigation

On 12/8, after Joint List MK Basel Ghattas left Keziot Prison where he had visited several incarcerated Palestinians, Israeli police searched the prisoners and found 12 mobile phones. The alleged connection between Ghattas and the phones led to a formal investigation that Ghattas and several of his Joint List colleagues deemed politically motivated. On 7/9/2016, the Knesset had enacted a law allowing a majority of MKs to suspend any colleague found to have incited terror or racism, or otherwise undermined Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The law was passed in direct response to a visit by Ghattas, MK Haneen Zoabi, and MK Jamal Zahalka to a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem whose son had been killed in a confrontation with Israeli forces on 2/2/2016 (see JPS 45 [3, 4] and 46 [1]). Before he was 1st questioned on 12/12, Ghattas said, “Everything’s OK, we are used to this kind of investigation,” and after the new allegations against him surfaced, he indicated (12/18) that he would cooperate but that it was “clear the police are determined to continue the political persecution of the mbrs. and leaders of Balad.” The MK added that the conduct of the police, which he described as representing a “policy of political revenge,” did not frighten him and his colleagues now or in the future.

Ghattas remained defiant throughout the quarter as the police proceeded with their investigation. On 12/20, the Knesset Home Comm. decided that MKs’ visits to prisoners would no longer be protected under their parliamentary immunity, and it empowered Public Security Min. Erdan to select which MKs would be eligible to visit so-called security prisons. The comm. also specifically lifted (12/21) Ghattas’s parliamentary immunity, clearing the way for a full trial. After being held in police custody until 12/27, Ghattas was released to house arrest. Meanwhile, the Knesset Ethics Comm. voted (1/2) to bar him from participating in comm. hearings, making speeches at the plenum, and submitting legislation for 6 mos. while under investigation.

Arson Allegations

A series of large fires broke out across Israel in late 11/2016. At the height of the episode (11/22–24), around 60,000 people had to leave their homes in Haifa, and the Israeli govt. declared a state of emergency in the city. The fires also spread to Palestinian communities and Israeli settlements in the West Bank on 11/24. One fire destroyed a Palestinian chicken farm nr. Hebron, killing at least 4,000 chickens. Another destroyed 400 dunams (approx. 100 acres) of farmland nr. Ramallah. To help combat the growing disaster, Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Cyprus, and the PA all sent firefighters to help contain the blaze. Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, and the U.S. also contributed aircraft to dump water and fire retardant on various hotspots. Overall, 180 people were lightly to moderately injured in the 2,600 brush fires and 1,800 urban fires reported between 11/19 and 11/28 (Jerusalem Post, 12/9).

Despite the 2 mos. of drought preceding the fires and the high wind speeds in late 11/2016 that created conditions known to produce spontaneous combustion, many Israeli politicians blamed Palestinians for the episode, and began calling it an “arson intifada.” Education Min. Bennett wrote on Facebook on 11/23, “Only he who the country doesn’t belong to him [sic] is capable of burning it.” Culture and Sports Min. Miri Regev said (11/24), “We must catch the terrorists who are burning our forests and endangering lives.” For his part, Netanyahu stated (11/24) that“every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism. Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely.” Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services then released a statement (12/2) saying that only 40 of the fires were started by arson, and that the arson was not necessarily politically motivated. At least 9 Palestinians were indicted on arson-related charges over the next 2 mos., but by the end of the quarter, the Israeli govt. had not released any conclusive evidence backing up the politicians’ claims.

Legislative Targeting

In addition to blaming Palestinians for the 11/2016 fires and bringing charges against Ghattas, Netanyahu’s ultranationalist govt. pursued various legislative initiatives targeting the Palestinian minority in Israel and organizations and individuals associated with the Israeli Left.

After a Knesset comm. advanced (11/13) the so-called Muezzin Bill, barring mosques from broadcasting the call to prayer, a senior legal official said (11/20) that he doubted Mandelblit would defend it at the High Court of Justice, despite supporters’ claims that it was designed to curb “noise pollution.” With international opposition to the proposed bill mounting (from the EU and Turkey in particular), the Knesset postponed (12/7) its final vote. Instead of addressing Turkish pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 11/27 complaints about religious discrimination, however, Netanyahu and his allies pulled the bill from the Knesset’s agenda because of complaints from Orthodox parties that, as worded, the bill could impact the sirens that announce Shabbat (Jerusalem Post, 12/7). The Ministerial Comm. for Legislation then approved a draft of the bill (12/12) satisfying these concerns; the new text banned religious use of loudspeakers from 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 A.M. and was sent to the Knesset for a 1st reading. 

Separately, at the very end of the previous quarter, the Knesset passed (11/14) the 1st reading of a bill authorizing the govt. to bar entry into the country of supporters of a boycott against Israel or reps. of NGOs endorsing such a boycott (see JPS 46 [2]). Despite complaints from left-wing and non-Zionist parties that the measure would silence dissent and further alienate Israel in the global community, the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Comm. approved (1/11) the bill for 2d and 3d readings, set for the 2d half of 2/2017.

Finally, the Knesset’s Ministerial Comm. for Legislation unanimously approved (1/8) a bill banning reps. of Breaking the Silence and other anti-occupation groups from speaking in Israeli schools. Charging these organizations with defaming IDF troops, the bill passed its 1st reading on 1/11.



In 2015 and early 2016, Hamas and Israel explored the possibility of negotiating a longterm truce, or hudna, and a prisoner swap. Their efforts, encouraged by the international community, failed to produce either outcome (see JPS 45 [2–4]). Unconfirmed reports of further efforts cropped up later, but all were equally inconclusive. This quarter, the 2 sides appeared poised for another effort.

The 1st indication came on 1/11 when Kul al-Arab reported that Qatar was mediating indirect Hamas-Israel negotiations on a possible prisoner exchange. Citing a senior Hamas source, the report indicated that the organization had agreed to hand over the remains of 2 IDF soldiers killed during the assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, as well as 2 captured Israeli civilians still being held in Gaza in exchange for the release of 58 Hamas mbrs. whom Israel had rearrested following their release under the 2011 prisoner swap (see JPS 41 [2]). The Israeli govt. reportedly agreed to these terms as long as all the prisoners would be expelled to Qatar, a condition rejected by Hamas. Neither side confirmed the report and 2 days later a conflicting story emerged. Palestinian sources told the Times of Israel that the initiative was stalled because Hamas was unwilling to open negotiations unless Israel freed the 58 prisoners (this was Hamas’s position in 2015 and early 2016 as well). According to various sources, Israel was prepared to release the prisoners, but not before negotiating a comprehensive deal. A few weeks later, other Israeli media reported (2/5) that Hamas had refused an entirely new offer to swap 1 Hamas official for 1 of the 2 Israeli civilians. A Hamas official appeared (2/5) to confirm the story, saying that the group was only interested in a “comprehensive deal or nothing.” The next day, a senior Israeli defense official indicated (2/6) that new terms were on the table: Israel would lift some restrictions on Gaza in exchange for the 2 civilians and the remains of the 2 IDF soldiers. A Hamas-affiliated Twitter account shot this down, too, saying (2/8) that what Israel was offering was not close to meeting “our minimum demands.”