In an usual move, President Trump recently criticized Israel’s construction of illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
“The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace,” Trump said in an interview published by Israel Hayom. He even said he’s not “necessarily sure that Israel is looking to make peace” with the Palestinians.
Phyllis Bennis, a Middle East expert at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, discussed the surprising criticism on Al-Jazeera.
Criticizing settlements is not a novel idea, Bennis noted, but it is for Trump, who’s been strongly supportive of Israel’s right-wing government throughout his presidency.
Despite his light criticism, that support seems unlikely to change. Bennis cautions that the comments were made “in the context of an interview,” rather than a “scripted presentation,” so it’s “not at all clear this represents a serious shift in U.S. policy.”
Though President Trump’s words, tweets, and State Department are often conveying conflicting messages, Bennis suggested that this does not impact the U.S.’s ability to present itself as an “honest broker” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Of course, this is because the “U.S. has not been an honest broker for many years,” said Bennis. Instead, “the U.S. positioned itself as being in charge of negotiations, in charge of diplomacy, but with no illusion that it stood equally for the rights of both sides.”
Bennis noted that U.S. negotiators of the past have referred to themselves openly as “Israel’s lawyers.”
Trump also said he would “feel much better” about the U.S.-Israeli relationship if “we can actually make a deal in terms of peace” between Israelis and Palestinians.
But a “deal,” Bennis said, is “very different from peace.” That’s because “peace requires a modicum of justice.” A “deal,” on the other hand, “implies ending resistance, essentially, to Israeli power.”
Bennis anticipates that Netanyahu will respond to President Trump’s comments, but doesn’t expect anything substantial. After all, President Trump has been one of Netanyahu’s loudest supporters.
“President Trump has made clear that he is more officially and formally pro-Israel than any other recent president, and [Netanyahu] is not about to put that at risk,” said Bennis.