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Trump’s unquestioning support means trouble for Israel

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President Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Israel and its right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli premier, who clashed publicly with former president Barack Obama, greeted Trump with more clear delight than most world leaders.

The pair spoke just days after Trump's inauguration and made plans to meet formally next month. The White House said it is in the early stages of contemplating the dramatic, symbolic relocation of the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But Trump and Netanyahu's budding bromance spells trouble for Israel. 

On Tuesday, the Israeli government approved the construction of some 2,500 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The move, as my colleague William Booth reports, marks the biggest single such expansion since 2014. The settlements are now home to more than 400,000 Jewish residents. They are also considered illegitimate in the eyes of the international community and an impediment to the ultimate realization of an independent Palestine.

Just days after President Trump entered the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lifted a ban on construction of new settlements. (Video: Reuters)

In the past, such Israeli announcements would lead to immediate American statements of condemnation and concern. Not so on Tuesday, when the White House and the State Department both demurred when asked for official comment. The European Union said the move "seriously" threatened "the prospects for a viable two-state solution."

A "two-state solution" for Israelis and Palestinians has, of course, been the cornerstone of Middle East policy for successive Republican and Democratic administrations. But that may no longer be the case for the Trump White House.

"It is evident that Israel is exploiting the inauguration of the new American administration to escalate its violations and the prevention of any existence of a Palestinian state," said Hanan Ashrawi, a leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

J Street, a liberal American Jewish organization based in Washington, expressed alarm at Trump's silence. "The failure of the American government to criticize this announcement would mark an unprecedented break with 50 years of bipartisan opposition to settlement expansion," J Street warned, adding that it seemed Netanayhu "has carte blanche from the new American President for unlimited settlement expansion."

The Israeli leadership may want "carte blanche," but that puts it on a collision course with the rest of the international community. Just last month, much to Trump's chagrin, the Obama administration chose not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction.

Obama was attacked for shirking the supposed American duty to shield Israel from any censure at the United Nations. But the abstention was the product of deep American frustration with Israeli actions under Netanyahu. Obama's secretary of state, John F. Kerry, described Netanyahu's government last month as "the most right-wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by the most extreme elements."

Netanyahu pays lip service to the two-state solution, but many of his key allies in government are doggedly against it. Now they're joined by Trump's team, including his chosen ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, a controversial supporter of settlements who once equated liberal American Jews with Nazi collaborators. One hundred of the proposed new units announced on Tuesday are intended for Beit El, a hard-line settlement financially supported by both Friedman and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a potential Middle East peace envoy.

When Trump won the election, Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu's education minister and leader of a party heavily backed by settlers, gleefully declared: "The era of the Palestinian state is over."

Bennett and other hard-liners represent the attitudes of an Israel that is growing increasingly nationalist and religious, as well as increasingly at odds with the views of the American Jewish mainstream. For decades, Israel could count on unquestioned bipartisan support in the United States, but its current rightward drift has led to a widening partisan split between Republicans and Democrats. That process may well accelerate under the Trump administration, creating a polarization that is not in Israel's interests.

So what happens next? The Trump camp has not offered an alternative to the two-state solution; indeed, the president's picks for secretary of state and ambassador to the United Nations both went on the record to defend it. But there's no sign that Trump would (or even could) exert the necessary pressure on Netanyahu's government to achieve that goal.

"I believe we're locked into a one-state situation," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said earlier this month. This is a matter-of-fact conclusion that many observers have accepted for quite some time, particularly after the Obama administration's efforts to force the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a deal failed in 2014.

That means millions of Palestinians will continue to chafe under an indefinite occupation, deprived of many of the same basic rights and freedoms afforded to the Israelis living next door. Netanyahu and his allies will continue to dismiss aspirations for Palestinian statehood as secondary to contending with the threat of Islamist terrorism. Those conditions, warn some Israeli experts, may lead to a new Palestinian uprising later this year.

A brutal one-state reality could set in: Bennett's proposal for circumscribed Palestinian enclaves within Israeli territory — an arrangement critics say is akin to the "Bantustans" of apartheid South Africa — may look more plausible. And Israel will almost certainly face more criticism and rebuke on the world stage.

"With Trump behind [Netanyahu] and a silent opposition, the prime minister is leading Israel to a binational state, which will be either not Jewish or not democratic," Israeli daily Haaretz noted in a Tuesday editorial.

This year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the Arab-Israeli conflict that drew the lines now considered the template for two future states. It may also mark the year the world gives up on that future.

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