On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would never abandon any of its West Bank settlements.
"We are here to stay, forever," he said. "There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel. It has been proven that it does not help peace, we've uprooted settlements. What did we get? We received missiles. It will not happen anymore."
To disabuse listeners of any confusion, Netanyahu added, "We will deepen our roots, build, strengthen and settle."
While Netanyahu is attempting to consolidate his position with hardliners in his coalition government, his comments are problematic for the United States.
First off, they are a direct repudiation of the Trump administration's efforts to reignite peace talks between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian government in the West Bank. Pursuing that objective, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has made multiple trips to Israel and the West Bank. The most recent of these came last week when Kushner apparently told President Abbas to expect a peace proposal within the next few months.
However, by refusing to close any Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Netanyahu has shut down Trump's efforts before they even begin. While Israel will be able to retain some settlements in any final status peace accord, it will also have to abandon some. This is a longstanding and basic expectation of the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. government; accepted by Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. By offering the alternative viewpoint so openly, Netanyahu is sending a very clear message to Kushner and thus to Trump: Shut up.
To be sure, some say that this is an issue for the Israelis and Palestinians, not the U.S. Others argue that the complexities of the conflict, Netanyahu's absent political will, and Abbas' weakness mean peace efforts are worthless anyway. They rightly note that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Lebanese Hezbollah continue to pose the greatest obstacles to peace.
Still, I don't think Trump can give up on peace talks. For one, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not exist in a microcosm: it affects U.S. national security interests. By ruling out even considering the future status of West Bank settlements, Israel weakens Palestinian moderates like Abbas. Already regarded as weak by Palestinian people, and constantly undermined by Hamas and Iran, Abbas now looks like a fool. And that's bad news for America because the empowerment of Hamas and Iranian interests is a recipe for regional instability.
More broadly though, the failure to solve this conflict is a core driver of Islamist extremism. Whether it's Sunni-Salafist groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda, or Shia-Khomeini organizations like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Palestinian issue is a critical unifying tool for terrorist recruitment, fundraising, and propaganda. If the U.S. seeks to defeat these terrorists, we must work to drain their favor with young Muslim men. Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not end terrorism, but at the margin, it would reduce terrorist recruitment.
The final problem here is that of timing. As I've noted, there are growing risks of a new conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And aside from the human consequences, were a new conflict to erupt, U.S. rapprochement with the Sunni Arab monarchies would also suffer. That would be a tragedy in the context of the Trump administration's significant success in persuading nations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to strengthen their counter-extremism efforts. Were a new Israeli-Palestinian conflict to erupt, these governments would take a harder line on Israel and by association, the U.S.
Trump should make clear his dissatisfaction with Netanyahu's comments.