Will Trump Backtrack On A Jerusalem Embassy And Illegal Settlements When Meeting Netanyahu Tomorrow?
Flying to Washington yesterday, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised 'very clear answers' out of his meeting with the US President Donald Trump tomorrow.
But for all the concrete – and in some cases shocking – moves made by Trump since he took office last month, his approach to the Israel-Palestine question remains something of a mystery.
The mixed messages given out by Trump on the region centre around the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem deemed illegal under international law, and, more immediately, the question of whether the US will, controversially, move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to the divided city of Jerusalem, of which more in a moment.
The headline question – which is interlinked to the two above issues – is whether the customary commitment to a two-state solution will prevail, or be abandoned.
Certainly, Netanyahu himself has shown no commitment to a two-state solution, or a solution of any realistic kind with the Palestinians in recent years: indeed, his apparent lack of desire for peace at least partly explains the near total breakdown of his relationship with Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.
So what, then, of Trump's approach?
We know that Trump and his aides, during last year's presidential campaign and then in the run-up to his assuming office in the White House, repeatedly promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
This has already been welcomed by a delighted Netanyahu as 'great'.
Further, Trump delighted Israel's right-wing prime minister in September by telling him during a lengthy meeting that if he won the presidential election, the US would 'recognise Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the State of Israel'.
While Israel considers Jerusalem its 'eternal, undivided capital', the Palestinians regard the east of the city – occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War – to be the capital of any future Palestinian state. Trump's plan effectively rules out a two-state solution to which the agreed division of Jerusalem would be key.
The US, the UN and almost every country in the world currently refuse to accept that Jerusalem is Israel's capital, with most major embassies functioning in the sea-side business capital, Tel Aviv. International consensus is that East Jerusalem is occupied territory, just like the West Bank.
The embassy move, critics say, would effectively rule out a two-state solution and would infuriate the Palestinians, some of whom have threatened another uprising if it goes ahead. Which is why previous presidents have resisted it. In 1995, the US Congress approved the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which requires that the American embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, successive US presidents – both Democratic and Republican – have exercised a waiver delaying its implementation every six months since then on national security grounds, and official US policy does not recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Trump promised to change that. But then, a day before Trump's inauguration, the new President's press officer, Sean Spicer would only say that journalists should 'stay tuned'.
A few days later, on his first daily White House briefing, Spicer appeared to backtrack with vague language. 'We're at the very beginning of the decision making process,' he said, repeating the same formula when questioned by several reporters. Asked by another journalist: 'At the end of Trump's four years in the White House, will there be an embassy in Jerusalem?,' Spicer smiled and once merely said that the 'decision making process' was only just beginning, adding that 'there's a reason why we go through a process'.
The next day, Spicer backtracked even further, saying that 'no decision has been made'. He then failed to clarify when a decision would be made.
On the expansion of settlements, Trump has given out equally confusing signals. Up until the turn of the year, he appeared to give the green light for settlements, attacking the UN and John Kerry for criticising them, and being supported in that, somewhat ludicrously, by the British Prime Minister Theresa May.
But after Israeli officials gleefully briefed that 'the rules of the game have changed', the White House surprised them by condemning settlement expansions and last week, Spicer was asked what the administration's position was on Israel's controversial outpost legalisation bill. 'I think that will obviously be a topic of discussion' when Netanyahu comes to the White House, he replied. 'Right now, I don't want to get ahead of that.'
Asked if Trump supported the two-state solution, Spicer replied that 'he supports peace, that's his goal'.
Perhaps it is just possible that Trump will confound his many critics and act as an honest broker in the region. At least one senior Briton who has met Jared Kushner, Trump's 36-year-old 'point man' on Israel-Palestine, says he benefits from a fresh pair of eyes and a keen intelligence. And Kushner will surely sit in on the meeting tomorrow.
But in the end, Trump may well come to regret the lavish promises and positive noises he has made to Netanyahu, who is not sycophantic and not afraid of anyone when it comes to protecting what he – arguably wrongly – sees as Israel's best interests. For it is unlikely that he will be able to please Israel's tough PM if he backtracks and fails to provide the 'answers' Netanyahu has declared are coming out of tomorrow's meeting.