Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) talks with President Trump (not shown) during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
Much like the proverbial snake in the grass, the discussion in the West Bank and Gaza of possibly finding Israel-Palestinian peace under the stewardship of President Trump is gathering a lot of heat, but also some momentum among settlers in the occupied territories.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Washington last week to meet with President Trump, and they produced what was, in theory, a significant victory for peace: The White House publication of a document titled “The Trump Administration’s Proposal for Israeli-Palestinian Peace,” which offered major proposals on borders, security, settlements and more.
While the document offered a long list of defensible views toward a negotiated deal, the document’s most critical initial revision was that there would no Palestinian state. This is important to consider because Israelis see their survival as an ethnic group as akin to that of a state. Without a Palestinian state, many settlements will become permanent.
On this point, settlers are saying Netanyahu gained a deal for himself. (Much of the paper is still anonymous, which naturally raises suspicions.) The settler interest group Gush Emunim reportedly intends to use the document to draw attention to the way the settlers have been painted in an unfairly negative light.
But the current focus of settler engagement in Washington also represents an effort to present a slightly differently open view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
After all, the original alternative stance of the settlers was that all settlement blocs needed to remain under Israeli control — even if that meant Israel relinquishing them at some point in the future. As settlements grew with each of the past 20 years, that idea became discredited. But the Trump administration is offering an idea that Israeli officials have been considering for some time, one that depends on major exceptions to land-based territorial swaps that would be the hardest part of any deal, which would be the continuation of the present agreement in the West Bank.
The West Bank/Gaza Palestinians, both those for whom the areas are a homeland and those under occupation, do not share Israeli settlers’ views of settling the territories and their land. Indeed, Israeli activists often meet with Palestinian leaders and try to persuade them of the benefits of an agreed-upon future. But Palestinians feel that it is the Israeli government that makes the final decisions about evacuating their land. That is not true today, as settlers are eager to have an engaged and engaged government come to the negotiating table with no expectations that there will be some final Israeli victory in the controversy over the 1967 borders. Settlers do not want a permanent land “land swap,” and they are not confident that the Palestinians are open to giving up land that they think is theirs.
All this means that the recent increase in settler willingness to hold constructive talks with Palestinians with the U.S. administration and even certain Israeli political parties represents a new basis for seriously discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But no matter the intended policy preferences or perceptions of individual settlements, the idea of a permanent status or interim peace is the correct way to think about a solution to a conflict that has loomed in the background of world history for decades.