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Will Trump’s affinity for Israel translate into new policy?

February 14, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
President Trump talked during his campaign of moving the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, seeming to favor Israel in his policy stances. But more recent comments suggest the administration could be more in line with long-standing American policy based on the two-state solution. What’s ahead for Mideast policy? Special correspondent Martin Seemungal reports from Jerusalem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington ahead of a meeting tomorrow with President Trump.

Special correspondent Martin Seemungal has some background from Jerusalem.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Jerusalem’s Old City is defined by divisions, four quarters, Armenian, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, a legacy of conquests and occupations dating back thousands of years.

Israeli soldiers captured East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in the Six-Day War of 1967. Today, Israeli soldiers still control the streets of the Old City and the thousands of Palestinians who live here. It is a tense, often volatile place.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I love Israel. I love Israel.


MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Enter Donald Trump:

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will move the American Embassy.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Promising to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem during his campaign.

Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, welcomes the news with open enthusiasm.

His vice mayor, Yitzhak Pindrus, says it is long overdue.

YITZHAK PINDRUS, Vice Mayor of Jerusalem: Jerusalem is the capital, capital of Israel, the capital of the Jewish nation. It was that for thousands of years. It’s not something that’s going to change. And I’m comfortable with that, and I would be very happy if the embassy will move here.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: No nation on Earth officially recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. To understand why, you have to go back beyond the ’67 war.

The United Nations’ 1947 partition created Jewish and Arab states, putting Jerusalem under international control. Israel captured a large part of Jerusalem in 1948, and divided Israeli West Jerusalem from a Palestinian East Jerusalem with a Green Line.

Despite declaring West Jerusalem as its capital, no country moved embassies there. This is the old Green Line that split Jerusalem in two. Israel annexed the eastern side of the city in the 1980s, illegally, according to international law. And ever since, it’s been trying to erase that sense of division. But the reality remains West Jerusalem is predominately Jewish, East Jerusalem is predominantly Muslim.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. And Donald Trump’s promise to move the embassy to Jerusalem has angered Palestinians.

Hanan Ashrawi is a senior member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

HANAN ASHRAWI, Palestinian Liberation Organization: This is an irresponsible and dangerous move. Don’t even think about it, because you will be inflaming feelings. You will be turning this into a religious conflict. You will be starting a whole new cycle of violence. The U.S. will be seen as complicit.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: The Trump administration got the same message from other Arab leaders in the region, and it may have had an impact. The embassy move doesn’t seem so imminent anymore, and may have been shelved for the time being.

However, there is still a feeling here that the Trump administration favors Israel. Just before the new year, the incoming president tweeted: “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. Stay strong, Israel. January 20 is fast approaching”

Trump’s tweet came just after former Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at Israel for its settlement policy, the last flash point in a tense relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama White House.

The two leaders clashed repeatedly, the deepest division over Iran. Netanyahu was openly and harshly critical of the nuclear deal that Obama championed. Netanyahu’s right-wing government was criticized often by the Obama administration, particularly on the issue of settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

A clearly pleased Netanyahu spoke the day after Trump’s victory.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli Prime Minister: You are a great friend of Israel. Over the years, you have expressed your support consistently, and I deeply appreciate it.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And within days of Trump’s inauguration, Netanyahu announced major settlement expansion plans, 3,000 units in total, the biggest in years. The White House stayed silent.

Ayelet Shaked is the justice minister and member of the right-wing Jewish Home Party that is pushing settlement building in what the government calls Judea and Samaria, the biblical term for the West Bank. She says Netanyahu’s announcements were made because Donald Trump is in the White House now.

AYELET SHAKED, Jewish Home Party: Of course it’s not a coincidence. For eight years, the Obama administration refused to any extension in Judea and Samaria. And, actually, in reality, the main cities there were frozen. So, of course we expect that, in a Trump administration, it will be different.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: And there are other indicators of the Trump strong pro-Israel sentiment. President Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel is David Friedman, reportedly a U.S. fund-raiser for a West Bank settlement, who believes Israel shouldn’t be forced into a two-state solution.

President Trump seems likely to appoint Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, viewed as extremely sympathetic to Israel, to negotiate a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

HANAN ASHRAWI: Now you have settlers and settler supporters in the White House. And it’s unbelievable. It’s incredible.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Dan Shapiro understands very well the complications of trying to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis. He was the American ambassador here during the Obama years and knows what Kushner is about to face.

DAN SHAPIRO, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel: Well, the first thing I would say to anybody given that assignment is, good luck. And I don’t mean that in a joking way. Obviously, anybody who’s worked on this issue knows its frustrations and pitfalls. One advantage he will certainly have is his close relationship to the president.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: Negotiations will be even more difficult than usual if the Palestinians feel the new U.S. administration has shifted strongly towards Israel. The early days of the Trump administration were not comforting to Palestinians.

But when Netanyahu announced another set of settlement building, the White House did react. The first part of the statement signaled a shift in past policy, often critical of Israel on the settlement building issue, saying the administration doesn’t believe the settlements are “an impediment to peace.”

But then a change in tone: “The construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

It was interpreted in Israel as a polite warning. It raised some concern within the Netanyahu coalition. Dan Meridor served as a Cabinet minister under Netanyahu, but left politics because of Netanyahu’s shift to the right. He says, when it comes to Trump, the government shouldn’t assume too much.

DAN MERIDOR, Former Israeli Cabinet Minister: Because he’s so unpredictable in a way, I wouldn’t bet anything on what may develop. If I were the government, I wouldn’t base any policies on any presumption Trump will go in a set way.

MARTIN SEEMUNGAL: White House statements and Trump’s recent comments do appear to indicate a change in direction from the first days of Trump’s presidency, more in line with longstanding American policy based on two states for two peoples.

The two-state solution is critical to peace, because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas still believes it. It remains the foundation of the Palestinian dream.

Tomorrow’s White House visit by Netanyahu will be watched very closely on both sides of Jerusalem and on the West Bank for any hint of a change in the status quo, one defined for so long by division.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Martin Seemungal in Jerusalem.