Why Settlement Growth Has Dropped Since Donald Trump Became President

July 11 2018

In 2017, the number of authorizations for new construction in the Jewish communities of the West Bank dropped by 47 percent; during the first three months of 2018, they hit a record low. Arguing that the Trump administration’s policies are responsible for this trend, Evelyn Gordon cites Yossi Klein Halevi’s perceptive comment that “the only pressure Israelis can’t resist is the pressure of an embrace.” And, writes Gordon, there are good reasons for this:

Contrary to his image overseas, Benjamin Netanyahu has never displayed much interest in settlement expansion. As I’ve noted before, settlement construction during most of his last nine years in office was lower than under any of his predecessors, including [those most committed to territorial compromise] like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. . . .

But most of Netanyahu’s party and many of his coalition partners do favor expanding settlements. Thus, to persuade them to show restraint, he must be able to demonstrate that doing so will produce tangible international benefits—either increased international support or at least reduced international hostility. And since no Israeli concession has ever produced any recompense from Europe, . . . that means from America.

Under the Obama administration, settlement restraint provided no benefits whatsoever. In 2009, for instance, Netanyahu, [responding to U.S. pressure], instituted an unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze to facilitate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, refused even to show up for nine months and then walked out in the tenth. . . .

At no point during President Obama’s two terms did administration officials even give Netanyahu lip-service credit for restraining settlement construction. Instead, they picked nonstop public fights over the issue. Thus, toward the end of Obama’s tenure, it had become impossible for Netanyahu to persuade his cabinet that Israel was gaining anything by this restraint, and settlement construction began rising again. . . .

In the past eighteen months, [by contrast], President Trump has provided unstinting support for Israel at the United Nations via Ambassador Nikki Haley; recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy there; publicly confronted the PA’s “pay-to-slay” policy; cut funding for UNRWA, the organization whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem; and abandoned the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. For anyone but the most rabid settlement supporter, this is clearly a worthwhile tradeoff.

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More about: Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Israel & Zionism, Settlements, US-Israel relations

Russia Has No Interest in Curbing Iran in Syria—Despite Putin’s Assurances

July 20 2018

In his joint press conference on Monday with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump stated that in their meeting he had brought up U.S. concerns about the Islamic Republic’s malign influence in the Middle East, and that he’d “made clear [to Putin] that the United States will not allow Iran to benefit from [America’s] successful campaign against Islamic State.” It does not appear, however, that any concrete agreements were reached. To Alexandra Gutowski and Caleb Weiss, it’s clear that agreements will do little, since Putin can’t be trusted to keep his word:

In late June, Russia began to unleash hundreds of airstrikes on [the southwestern Syrian province of] Deraa, in flagrant violation of the U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement that Trump and Putin personally endorsed last November. While Russia struck from the air, forces nominally under the control of Damascus conducted a major ground offensive.

Closer examination shows that the dividing line between Assad’s military and Iranian-aligned forces has become ever blurrier. Before the offensive began, Lebanese Hizballah and other Iranian-backed militias staged apparent withdrawals from the region, only to return after donning [Assad]-regime uniforms and hiding their banners and insignia. Tehran is also directly involved. On July 2, a senior commander of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) died in Deir al-Adas, a village in northern Deraa province along the strategic M5 highway. Persian sources describe him as the commander for the province. [In fact], forces nominally under the control of Damascus are permeated with troops that are at least as close to Tehran. . . .

It’s also becoming clear that Russian aircraft are supporting the efforts of Iranian-backed units nominally under the control of Damascus. . . . Russia has also now deployed military police to hold terrain captured by Iranian-aligned forces, demonstrating a level of coordination as well as Russia’s unwillingness to use its forces for more dangerous offensive operations. These terrain-holding forces free up Iran-aligned actors to continue undertaking offensives toward the Golan.

Reported meetings between militia commanders and Russian officers suggest these operations are coordinated. But even without formal coordination, Russian air cover and Iranian ground offensives are mutually dependent and reinforcing. Iran can’t be in the sky, and Russia refuses to put significant forces on the ground, lest too many return home in body bags. Thus, Putin requires Iran’s forces on the ground to secure his ambitions in Syria.

President Trump should remain highly skeptical of Putin’s interest in serving as a partner in Syria and his ability to do so. The humanitarian relief Putin proposes [for postwar reconstruction] is designed to fortify the regime, not to rehabilitate children brutalized by Assad. Putin also has limited interest in curtailing Iran’s deployment. Russia itself admits that Iran’s withdrawal is “absolutely unrealistic.” Trump should not concede American positions, notably the strategic base at Tanf which blocks Iran’s path to the Mediterranean, for empty promises from Russia. Putin can afford to lie to America, but he can’t afford to control Syria without Iranian support.

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More about: Donald Trump, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy, Vladimir Putin