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Israel: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief

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Israel: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief

October 28, 2016January 6, 2017 (R44245)

U.S.-Israel Relations in a Time of Transition

For decades, strong bilateral relations have fueled and reinforced significant U.S.-Israel cooperation in many areas, including regional security. Nonetheless, at various points throughout the relationship, U.S. and Israeli policies have diverged on some important issues. Significant differences regarding regional issues—notably Iran and the Palestinians—have arisen or intensified since 2009, during the tenures of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.1

Since the 2016 U.S. election, a number of developments involving President-elect Donald Trump, the Obama Administration, Israeli leaders, and various other actors (including Members of Congress) have arisen. These developments have already affected U.S. policy in relation to Israel or are likely to affect it following Trump's inauguration; they include the following.

  • Several controversies regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including the U.N. Security Council's adoption of Resolution 2334 (UNSCR 2334) on December 23, 2016, by a vote of 14 in favor, zero against, and one abstention by the United States.
  • Principles advanced as a possible basis for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations by Secretary of State John Kerry on December 28, 2016, and other statements and actions related to issues of Israeli-Palestinian dispute as the U.S. presidential transition approaches.
  • The possibility that the incoming Administration could move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • Public efforts by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders to influence the incoming Administration's stance on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA).

Also, in early January 2017, a legal probe of Prime Minister Netanyahu turned into a criminal investigation—in connection with possibly unlawful receipt of gifts—that some observers speculate could threaten his term of office.2 Netanyahu has stated that the allegations of misconduct constitute "persecution" and insisted that they would come to nothing.3

For background
(R44245)

Introduction

Israel's security has significant relevance for U.S. interests in the Middle East, and Congress plays an active role in shaping and overseeing U.S. relations with Israel. This report focuses on the following:

  • Recent dynamics in U.S.-Israel relations and security cooperation.
  • Addressing regional threats Israel perceives.
  • Current domestic political issues.
  • Some Israeli-Palestinian developments.

For additional information and analysis, see CRS Report RL33476, Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, by [author name scrubbed]; CRS Report RL33222, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, by [author name scrubbed]; and CRS Report R44281, Israel and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, coordinated by [author name scrubbed].

Figure 1. Israel: Map and Basic Facts

Sources: Graphic created by CRS. Map boundaries and information generated by [author name scrubbed] using Department of State Boundaries (2011); Esri (2013); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency GeoNames Database (2015); DeLorme (2014). Fact information from CIA, The World Factbook; Economist Intelligence Unit; IMF World Outlook Database; Israel Central Bureau of Statistics. All numbers are estimates and as of 2016 unless specified.

Notes: UNDOF: United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) withdrew to Israeli-controlled territory in the Golan Heights in September 2014. The West Bank is Israeli-administered with current status subject to the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement; permanent status to be determined through further negotiation. The status of the Gaza Strip is a final status issue to be resolved through negotiations. Israel proclaimed Jerusalem as its capital in 1950, but the United States, like nearly all other countries, retains its embassy in Tel Aviv-Yafo. Boundary representation is not necessarily authoritative.

Overview of U.S.-Israel Relations

For decades, strong bilateral relations have fueled and reinforced significant U.S.-Israel cooperation in many areas, including regional security. Nonetheless, at various points throughout the relationship, aligning U.S. and Israeli policies has presented challenges on some important issues. Notable differences regarding regional issues—notably Iran and the Palestinians—have arisen or intensified since 2009, during the tenures of President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.1 Israeli leaders have expressed some concerns about the U.S. posture in the region and the potential implications for Israel, while U.S. officials have periodically shown unease regarding the compatibility of some Israeli statements and actions with overall U.S. regional and international interests. However, both governments say that bilateral cooperation has continued and even increased by many measures in a number of fields such as defense, trade, and energy.

Israeli leaders and significant segments of Israeli civil society regularly emphasize their shared values and ongoing commitments to political, economic, and cultural connections with the United States and the broader Western world. However, the future trajectory of Israel's ties with the United States and other international actors may be influenced by a number of factors including geopolitics, generational change, and demographic trends.2

The longtime U.S. commitment to Israel's security and "qualitative military edge" in the region is intended to enable Israel to defend itself against threats it perceives, which in recent years have largely come from Iran and groups Iran supports. The political complement to this cooperation has been a long-standing U.S. effort to encourage Israel and other regional actors to improve relations with one another. U.S. policymakers have sponsored or mediated numerous Arab-Israeli peace initiatives since the 1970s, including Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and interim agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, largely owing to lingering Israeli-Palestinian disputes and widespread Middle Eastern turmoil, formal political normalization for Israel within the region has been elusive. Such elusiveness may factor into what appears to have been a relatively less urgent U.S. approach to the issue in recent years.

Despite a lack of formal normalization, in recent years Israel has made common cause to some extent with various Arab states. Mutual concerns regarding Iran and its regional actions have presented opportunities for Israel to work discreetly with some Arab states in attempts to counter Iranian influence. Additionally, Israeli and Arab leaders have expressed similar concerns about the nature and effectiveness of U.S. engagement in the region on behalf of traditional U.S. partners.3

Addressing Regional Threats

Israeli leaders and numerous other observers publicly identify Iran and two of its non-state allies—Hezbollah in Lebanon4 and Hamas in the Gaza Strip—as particularly significant security threats to Israel. Other threats or potential threats include Palestinian attacks emanating from the West Bank and Jerusalem and concerns about terrorist groups operating near Israel's borders with Syria and Egypt.5 At the same time, at least one Israeli intelligence estimate was reported to assess that recent changes and turmoil in the Middle East may in some ways have improved Israel's strategic posture.6

Perceptions that the United States has become less engaged in addressing problems in the region may exacerbate Israel's anxiety over the extent to which it can rely on its geographically distant superpower partner to actively thwart potential threats Israel faces, and to do so in the manner Israel's government prefers. Some Israelis and others have argued that the level and nature of influence the United States has in the Middle East has been reduced, due to a number of political and economic factors.7 Nevertheless, substantial U.S. military assets remain deployed in the region, and U.S. officials regularly reiterate commitments to Israel (and other regional allies) and reinforce these statements through tangible means such as aid, arms sales, and missile defense cooperation.8 Debate continues among Israelis over the urgency of a political resolution to Israel's disputes with the Palestinians, as well as the potential regional and international consequences—including possibly increased political and economic "isolation" (or, as some Israelis characterize it, "delegitimization")—if no resolution occurs.

Israel maintains conventional military superiority relative to its neighbors and the Palestinians.9 Yet, it is unclear how shifts in regional order and evolving asymmetric threats may affect Israel's capabilities to project military strength, deter attack, and defend its population and borders. Israeli officials closely monitor U.S. actions and consult with U.S. counterparts in apparent efforts to gauge and influence the nature and scope of future U.S. engagement on and commitment to key regional issues.10

Some unconventional threats to Israel are seen to have been reduced because of factors such as heightened security measures vis-à-vis Palestinians; missile defense systems; and reported cyber capabilities. From a physical security standpoint, Israel has proposed and partially constructed a national border fence network of steel barricades (accompanied by watch towers, patrol roads, intelligence centers, and military brigades), which is presumably designed to minimize militant infiltration, illegal immigration, and smuggling from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan.11

After the Iran Nuclear Deal

Israeli politicians and security officials have expressed a range of opinions regarding the JCPOA. Many Israeli leaders and observers indicate concern that the nuclear deal and its implementation is facilitating greater Iranian influence in the Middle East and emboldening Iran and its allies to test Israel's political and military capacities for deterrence. Some leaders, such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, asserted at the time that the JCPOA was signed that it also legitimized Iran's aspirations to be a "nuclear threshold" state.12

Yet, some within Israel's security establishment have identified positive aspects in the JCPOA's time-specific limits or rollbacks on Iran's ability to produce fissile material.13 Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, said in January 2016, "The deal has actually removed the most serious danger to Israel's existence for the foreseeable future and greatly reduced the threat over the longer term."14 Analysts writing in an Israeli strategic affairs journal asserted in April 2016 that "Israel can undertake not to attack Iran as long as there is no violation of the terms of the JCPOA."15 Iran has continued to develop and test ballistic missiles, leading to some U.S. sanctions,16 while Israeli calls for more concerted international action arguably lack enforcement mechanisms.17

A number of post-JCPOA developments may affect Israel's "qualitative military edge" (QME) over regional threats, including

  • The prospect of greater Iranian capacity to affect the regional balance of power given its renewed global economic connectivity.18
  • An increase in U.S. arms sales to Arab Gulf states in an effort to reassure them.19
  • Russia's decision to deliver on a long-delayed agreement to provide Iran with an upgraded air defense system known as the S-300.20

Regional Threats from Hezbollah, Syria, and Sunni Jihadists

Deterrence between Israel and Iran's ally Hezbollah is based on various military and political factors, and has largely held since a major Israel-Hezbollah conflict in the summer of 2006. A number of regional developments may affect Israel's ability to deter Hezbollah in the future, including dynamics involving Lebanon, Syria, and U.S.-Israel closeness and cooperation.21

At various times during the conflict in Syria, Israel has reportedly fired on targets in Syria or Lebanon in response to attack or threats of attack, or in attempts to prevent arms transfers to Hezbollah in Lebanon.22 In February 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

We will not agree to the supply of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah from Syria and Lebanon. We will not agree to the creation of a second terror front on the Golan Heights. These are the red lines that we have set and they remain the red lines of the State of Israel.23

However, Israel's ability to operate in or around Syrian airspace appears to have become more dependent on Russia since it became directly involved in Syria in the fall of 2015. Israel and Russia initially established a joint mechanism for preventing misunderstandings,24 but Russia's reported deployment of advanced S-300 and S-400 air defense systems in Syria could complicate future Israeli efforts to prevent or mitigate the supply of arms to Hezbollah via Syrian territory.25 In July 2016, a Russian drone aircraft reportedly crossed into Israeli airspace by mistake and was fired upon by Israeli Patriot and air-to-air missiles before safely returning to Syria.26 At least one incident in which Syria reportedly fired on Israeli aircraft has driven some speculation about possible unintended consequences of Russia's apparent emboldenment of Syria.27

Israeli officials have sought to draw attention to Hezbollah's weapons buildup—including reported upgrades to the range and precision of its projectiles—and its alleged use of Lebanese civilian areas as strongholds.28 In highlighting these issues, Israel may be aiming to bolster the credibility of its threat of massive retaliation against a Hezbollah attack, at least partly to spur key international actors to work toward preventing or delaying conflict.29 Observers debate the extent to which Hezbollah's involvement in the Syrian conflict in support of the Asad regime has weakened or strengthened the group, as well as whether Hezbollah's domestic profile and the profusion of international and non-state actors in the region make near-term conflict with Israel more or less likely.30

Sunni Salafi-jihadist activity in the region since 2014—particularly involving the Islamic State organization (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL, or by the Arabic acronym Da'esh)—has also deepened Israeli concerns regarding Israel's border security31 and the security of neighboring Jordan. Israel is constructing a security barrier along its border with Jordan is similar in nature to projects undertaken on its other frontiers.32 Israeli security officials additionally monitor groups and individuals in the neighboring Gaza Strip and (Egypt's) Sinai Peninsula who claim allegiance to or inspiration from Salafi-jihadists,33 and Israeli leaders have taken note of incidents in Europe since 2014 in which extremists have specifically targeted Jews (including Israeli citizens).34 Since late 2015, some IS leaders or associated groups have issued explicit threats against Israel and/or Jews,35 though how that translates to operational capacity and concerted effort to direct or inspire attacks against Israeli targets is less clear.36

Individual Palestinian Attacks

In the fall of 2015, tensions connected with Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif contributed to a wave of mostly "lone wolf" attacks by Palestinians against Jewish Israeli security personnel and civilians that intensified for several months and have fluctuated since. More than 30 Israelis and 200 Palestinians had been killed as a result of that violence as of September 2016.37

Israeli authorities have responded with both incentives and punitive measures intended to deter future attacks. The government increased the number of permits for West Bank residents to work in Israel in hopes of reducing the grievances that officials apparently assume are driving the attacks.38 In July 2016, the prime minister's office announced that any amounts transferred by the PA to "terrorists and their families" would be deducted from the monthly tax revenues Israel transfers to the PA,39 though no public announcement of specific deductions has ensued. In August, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman presented what has been called a "carrot and stick" plan, which has generated significant debate regarding its focus on linking rewards or punishments in specific Palestinian West Bank communities to the extent attackers come from those communities.40

While U.S. and international observers have denounced the Palestinian attacks and directed some criticism toward Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders, they have also criticized Israeli leaders for (1) allegedly disproportionate security responses, (2) continued settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and (3) resistance to new initiatives aimed at restarting peace talks.41 See "Israeli-Palestinian Developments" below.

U.S.-Israel Security Cooperation

General Issues

Significant U.S.-Israel security cooperation exists in the realms of military aid, arms sales, joint exercises, and information sharing. It has also included periodic U.S.-Israel governmental and industrial cooperation in developing military technology.

U.S. military aid has helped transform Israel's armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world. This aid for Israel has been designed to maintain Israel's "qualitative military edge" (QME) over neighboring militaries, because Israel must rely on better equipment and training to compensate for a manpower deficit in any potential regional conflict.42 U.S. military aid, a portion of which may be spent on procurement from Israeli defense companies, also has helped Israel build and sustain a domestic defense industry, and Israel in turn ranks as one of the top exporters of arms worldwide.43

New Aid MOU

On September 14, 2016, the U.S. and Israeli governments signed a new 10-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) on annual U.S. military aid,44 which will come into effect in FY2019 after the current 10-year MOU runs its course.45 The Administration has stated that it is the largest single pledge of military assistance in U.S. history.46 One observer claimed that the deal provided vindication for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama to some extent:

One, in Jerusalem, wanted to disprove the notion that he harmed bilateral relations with his country's greatest ally by picking a fight [over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal] with its leader.

And the other, soon to leave the White House, was looking for the ultimate seal of approval for his support to the Jewish State. Both ended the race legitimately claiming victory.47

The new MOU will affect U.S. security-related funding for Israel—subject to annual congressional appropriations—as follows:

  • Increases annual Foreign Military Financing (FMF) aid to Israel to $3.3 billion (from a current level of $3.1 billion).
  • Sets an annual U.S. funding level for U.S.-Israel cooperative missile defense programs at $500 million. Missile defense funding, which is appropriated from Defense Department accounts rather than State Department foreign aid accounts, was not included in past U.S.-Israel aid MOUs. Such funding has fluctuated above and below the $500 million mark from year to year.
  • Phases out (reportedly during the last half of the 10-year period)48 the longtime allowance for Israel to use 26.3% of annual FMF for purchases from its own domestic manufacturers. No similar allowance is available to other countries.
  • Ends or significantly reduces Israel's past practice of using FMF for fuel purchases.

Reportedly, Israel has agreed in writing to refrain from requesting supplemental funding from Congress for the MOU's entire duration, except for special emergency needs resulting from an armed conflict.49 It is unclear how this will affect Congress's role in the appropriations process.

Additionally, Senator Lindsey Graham has said that as part of the deal, the Israeli government signed a letter agreeing to return any funds that Congress might appropriate for the remaining two years (FY2017 and FY2018) covered by the FY2009-FY2018 MOU that was finalized in 2007 during the Bush Administration.50 Senator Graham is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. This subcommittee's version of the FY2017 appropriations bill (S. 3117) would provide Israel with $3.4 billion, $300 million more than the $3.1 billion called for in the current MOU. In September 2016, following the new MOU's signing, Senator Graham and six other Senators introduced the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act for the Defense of Israel, 2016 (S. 3363), which would appropriate additional emergency funds for Israel in the amount of $750 million in FMF and $750 million in missile defense funding.

On July 25, 2016, the Israeli Prime Minister's office released a statement that read in part, "Israel places great value on the predictability and certainty of the military assistance it receives from the United States and on honoring bilateral agreements. Therefore, it is not in Israel's interest for there to be any changes to the fixed annual MOU levels without the agreement of both the U.S. Administration and the Israeli government. For FY2017, Israel remains committed to the FMF level specified in the current MOU, which is $3.1 billion."

Pending Security Cooperation Legislation

2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House-passed version of the NDAA (H.R. 4909) includes the following provisions:

  • Section 1250. Would authorize up to $25 million for U.S.-Israel cooperation in research and development of directed energy (laser) technologies to counter missiles, drones, mortars, and improvised explosive devices if the two countries can reach agreement on sharing costs and intellectual property rights.
  • Section 1259J. Would authorize assistance to Israel "to improve maritime security and maritime domain awareness" over a five-year period. Activities for which assistance would be specifically authorized include support for the David's Sling missile defense system, Israeli participation in joint maritime exercises with the United States, visits of U.S. vessels at Israeli ports, and research and development.
  • Section 1259N. Would require the Administration to report within 180 days to congressional committees on (1) defensive capabilities and platforms requested by Israel, (2) the availability of such items for transfer, and (3) steps the President is taking to transfer such items.

The Senate-passed version of the NDAA (S. 2943) does not include any of the above provisions, but includes a separate provision that would increase the annual amount authorized for U.S.-Israel anti-tunneling cooperation (through calendar year 2018) from $25 million to $50 million if such funds are matched in the corresponding calendar year by Israel. Of any U.S. amounts used for this purpose in FY2017, not less than 50% would be for research, development, test, and evaluation activities in the United States.

Both H.R. 4909 and S. 2943 would authorize funding for Israel-based missile defense systems beyond the Administration's budget request, but the aggregate increases in S. 2943 are less than in H.R. 4909. A July 2016 letter from 36 Senators urged the chairmen of the conference reconciling the two bills to use the H.R. 4909 figures.51

2017 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. Following the pattern from previous years, both the House-passed (H.R. 5293) and Senate-introduced (S. 3000) versions of this act would provide funding for Israel-based missile defense systems beyond the Administration's budget request.52 On June 14, 2016, in a document opposing a number of items in H.R. 5293, the Administration said that it "opposed the addition of $455 million above the FY 2017 Budget request for Israeli missile defense procurement and cooperative development programs."53 In a June 15, 2016, daily press briefing, the State Department spokesperson explained the Administration's position by saying that $455 million "is the largest such non-emergency increase ever and, if it's funded, would consume a growing share of a shrinking U.S. Missile Defense Agency's budget." Some observers interpreted the Administration's position as possibly being linked to the then-ongoing MOU negotiations.54

Current Israeli Government and Major Domestic Issues

Prime Minister Netanyahu of the Likud party presides over a coalition government that includes six parties generally characterized as right of center. Netanyahu has been prime minister since March 2009, and also served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. One commentator has said that Israelis keep returning Netanyahu to office "precisely because he is risk averse: no needless wars, but no ambitious peace plans either."55 In May 2016, the Yisrael Beiteinu party joined the government, and its leader Avigdor Lieberman became Israel's defense minister. Lieberman replaced Moshe Ya'alon (a Likud member) as defense minister. Ya'alon has since expressed his intent to challenge Netanyahu in the next national elections, which are due no later than 2019.

The varying interests of the coalition's members and some intra-party rifts—particularly in Netanyahu's Likud party56—contribute to difficulties in building consensus on the following issues:

  • How to address an interrelated set of concerns relating to national security, freedom of expression, competing ideologies, and international influence; and
  • How to promote macroeconomic strength while addressing popular concerns regarding economic inequality and cost of living.

Netanyahu's government has faced considerable challenges in connection with Israeli-Palestinian issues and their international ripple effects. Such challenges take place partly within an environment where Israeli prime ministers confront considerable difficulty in balancing fractious coalitions. Speculation continues regarding the possibility that Netanyahu might seek to strengthen his hand vis-à-vis individual coalition partners by bringing in the center-left Zionist Union (featuring Labor and Ha'tnua), or some portion of its Knesset members.57 Additionally, Netanyahu's position could be imperiled if an ongoing attorney general's corruption probe leads to a formal criminal investigation and possibly an indictment.58

Debates about trends in Israeli society have pitted some right-of-center political leaders—including Netanyahu in some instances—against top Israeli defense and military officials. Some members of the security establishment have criticized what they portray as unjustifiable force by Israeli security personnel, and have discerned signs of "intolerance" and "brutalization" in Israeli society.59 In some cases of alleged misconduct by personnel, right-leaning political figures have countered criticism proffered against them. Such divisions between defense officials and some government leaders was exacerbated in the aftermath of a March 2016 shooting of a wounded, prostrate Palestinian attacker by an Israeli soldier in the West Bank.60 Upon his resignation in May, former defense minister Moshe Ya'alon asserted that manifestations of extremism in Israel and the Likud party are "seeping into the army."61 The previous defense minister, Ehud Barak (who is also a former prime minister) has made similar statements about increasing signs of extremism in Israeli society and politics.62

The Israeli public and international observers vigorously debated two Netanyahu-supported bills in the Knesset that passed in July 2016. One law requires non-governmental organizations (NGOs) receiving more than half their funding from foreign governments to officially declare the funding sources, and appears to disproportionately affect left-leaning organizations.63 In a July 12 daily press briefing, a State Department spokesperson raised concerns about the "chilling effect that this new law could have on NGO activities." The second law amended Israel's Basic Law to allow a Knesset supermajority to expel a Knesset member if the member incites racism or supports violence against the state.64 It appears to be tailored to address concerns among several lawmakers regarding Arab Knesset members.65

Israeli-Palestinian Developments

Official U.S. policy continues to favor a "two-state solution" to address core Israeli security demands as well as Palestinian aspirations for national self-determination. Continued failure by Israelis and Palestinians to make progress toward a negotiated solution could have a number of regional and global implications. Israeli actions regarding security arrangements and settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem could have ramifications for the resolution of final-status issues. Palestinian leaders support initiatives to advance their statehood claims and appear to be encouraging international legal and economic pressure on Israel in an effort to improve the Palestinian position vis-à-vis Israel. U.S. and international efforts to preserve the viability of a negotiated two-state solution attract skepticism because of regional turmoil and domestic reluctance among key Israeli and Palestinian leaders and constituencies to contemplate political or territorial concessions.

Meanwhile, Israelis debate whether their leaders should participate in international initiatives, advance their own diplomatic proposals, act unilaterally, or manage the "status quo." Netanyahu has publicly welcomed resuming negotiations without preconditions, while insisting that regional difficulties forestall or seriously impede prospects for mutual Israeli-Palestinian concessions through negotiation. Additionally, several government ministers openly oppose a two-state solution.66 Toward the left of the political spectrum, some Israeli politicians welcome the prospect of greater U.S. involvement in principle, claiming that regional challenges, Israel's international ties, and demographic changes make resolving the Palestinian issue a priority. Even so, center-left leaders such as Yitzhak Herzog of the main opposition Labor party seem to acknowledge that a two-state solution is unlikely in the near term.67

Observers speculate that the United States might set forth or agree to terms of reference in a presidential statement or U.N. Security Council initiative calculated to preserve the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and of U.S. diplomatic leadership on the issue.68 After the September 2016 signing of the U.S.-Israel aid MOU, President Obama asserted that "we will continue to press for a two-state solution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite the deeply troubling trends on the ground that undermine this goal."69 On the same day, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, "We don't have any plans to do anything particularly dramatic at this point. We continue to want to see a two-state solution remain a live option. It's vitally important."70 On September 20, 88 Senators sent a letter to Obama urging him to "make it clear that you will veto any one-sided UNSC resolution that may be offered in the coming months … whether focused on settlements or other final-status issues."71

Netanyahu and Lieberman have welcomed efforts by Russia72 and Egypt to facilitate an initiative involving Arab states "which share security interests with Israel and have leverage on the Palestinians."73 However, some analysts assert that Arab states are distracted by other internal and regional concerns74 and are unlikely to use their leverage unless Israel shows a willingness to contemplate concessions envisioned in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.75 In October 2016, various Arab states sponsored resolutions by the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) Executive Board and World Heritage Committee. The resolutions criticized various Israeli actions, including those at and around Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif, and downplayed Jewish names and historical narratives in connection with various holy sites.76 In response to the Executive Board resolution, Israel suspended its cooperation with UNESCO,77 and UNESCO's Director-General raised concerns about the effect that divisions based on religious narrative might have on UNESCO's ability to carry out its mission.78

In the meantime, U.S. efforts to prevent or mitigate Israeli-Palestinian crises could depend largely on continued Israel-PA West Bank security cooperation79 and the PA's ability to continue paying its employees' salaries. Also, questions persist regarding the aging Abbas's remaining tenure and what will happen when he leaves office.80

Author Contact Information

[author name scrubbed], Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs ([email address scrubbed], [phone number scrubbed])

Footnotes

Some observers claim that moving the U.S. embassy could lead to a number of negative consequences. One U.S.-based analyst has been quoted as saying, "I have heard from Israelis that any sudden moves on the U.S. position on Jerusalem would potentially precipitate a third intifada, disrupt the strategic ties between Jordan and Israel and cause a break in the quiet diplomacy with Saudi Arabia."43 The PLO's chief negotiator has threatened to reverse the recognition it has accorded Israel to date.44 An opponent of the move has argued that it would be prejudicial "in direct violation" of the 1993 Declaration of Principles (also known as the Oslo Accord).45 Some observers appear to base their stated concerns about an embassy move not on an imminent expectation of security problems or dramatic diplomatic backlash, but on the possibility that a move could undermine promising opportunities for Israel to work with Arab states.46

However, proponents of a move downplay such concerns. One proponent has asserted that widespread de facto acceptance of West Jerusalem as part of Israel means that relocating the embassy to Jerusalem would not prejudice the U.S. stance on the city's ultimate status, including that of the Old City and the holy sites.47 Another proponent has stated that an embassy move could change the atmosphere in such a way that a resumption of peace talks becomes more likely.48 A former senior U.S. official on Israeli-Palestinian issues wrote in January 2017 that coupling an embassy move with a larger diplomatic initiative regarding Jerusalem's status could possibly aid the peace process, under certain circumstances.49

Author Contact Information

[author name scrubbed], Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs ([email address scrubbed], [phone number scrubbed])

Footnotes

Martin Indyk, "The Jerusalem-first option," New York Times, January 6, 2017.
1.

See, e.g., Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Obama Doctrine," The Atlantic, April 2016; Jason M. Breslow, "Dennis Ross: Obama, Netanyahu Have a 'Backdrop of Distrust,'" PBS Frontline, January 6, 2016; Sarah Moughty, "Michael Oren: Inside Obama-Netanyahu's Relationship," PBS Frontline, January 6, 2016.

2.

See, e.g., Dennis Ross, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015; Dana H. Allin and Steven N. Simon, Our Separate Ways: The Struggle for the Future of the U.S.-Israel Alliance, New York: PublicAffairs, 2016; Pew Research Center, Israel's Religiously Divided Society, March 8, 2016.

3.

Leslie Susser, "Living in a post-American Middle East," Jerusalem Report, July 11, 2016.

4.

See, e.g., Neri Zilber, "A Nice, Relaxing Weekend in the Sights of Hezbollah," Tablet, July 12, 2016; Avi Isaacharoff, "10 years after the Second Lebanon War, Israel isn't in Hezbollah's sights," Times of Israel, July 14, 2016; William Booth, "Ten years after last Lebanon war, Israel warns next one will be far worse," Washington Post, July 23, 2016.

5.

For information on various potential threats to Israel's security, see testimony from a House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee hearing dated April 19, 2016, available at https://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/joint-subcommittee-hearing-israel-imperiled-threats-to-the-jewish-state/; and Robert M. Danin, "Israel Among the Nations," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016.

6.

Yossi Melman, "Intelligence Report: Israel's strategic position has improved," Jerusalem Report, March 5, 2016.

7.

See, e.g., Susser, "Living in a post-American Middle East," op. cit.; Martin Kramer, "Israel and the Post-American Middle East," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2016; Dennis Ross, "Why Middle Eastern Leaders Are Talking to Putin, Not Obama," Politico, May 8, 2016.

8.

See, e.g., William Booth and Carol Morello, "Biden arrives in Israel to talk billions in military aid — and try to patch things up," washingtonpost.com, March 8, 2016; Greg Jaffe and Juliet Eilperin, "Obama's gulf gambit: More military aid to allies could ease regional rifts with Iran," washingtonpost.com, April 21, 2016.

9.

Danin, op. cit.; Kramer, op. cit.

10.

See, e.g., Carmit Valensi and Udi Dekel, "The Current Challenges in the Middle East Demand a Joint United States-Israel Strategy," Strategic Assessment, April 2016.

11.

"Israel approves additional section of Jordan border fence: report," i24news, July 19, 2016; Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israel Invests Billions in Border Barricades," Defense News, September 7, 2015.

12.

Michael Herzog, "Israel Confronts the Iran Nuclear Deal," Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch 2455, July 24, 2015.

13.

Danin, op. cit.

14.

David E. Sanger, "A Year Later, a Mixed Record for the Iran Accord," New York Times, July 14, 2016.

15.

Carmit Valensi and Udi Dekel, "The Current Challenges in the Middle East Demand a Joint United States-Israel Strategy," Strategic Assessment, vol. 19, no. 1, April 2016. See also Sanger, op. cit.

16.

U.S. Treasury Department Press Release, "Treasury Sanctions Those Involved in Ballistic Missile Procurement For Iran," January 17, 2016.

17.

Barbara Opall-Rome, "Experts: Israel Lacks Leverage Against Iranian Missile Tests," Defense News, March 14, 2016.

18.

Valensi and Dekel, op. cit.

19.

Joe Gould, "US Lawmakers Urge Action on Jet Sales to Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain," Defense News, July 12, 2016.

20.

Parisa Hafezi, "Iran deploys Russian-made S-300 missiles at its Fordow nuclear site: TV," Reuters, August 29, 2016.

21.

See, e.g., Yuval Azulai, "Israel, US conduct joint missile defense trial," Globes, July 6, 2016.

22.

See, e.g., "Israel has hit 'dozens' of Hezbollah arms transfers, Netanyahu says," Times of Israel, April 11, 2016; Anne Barnard, "Lebanon: New Skirmish Between Israel and Hezbollah in Disputed Territory," New York Times, January 5, 2016.

23.

Isabel Kershner, "Netanyahu Welcomes Cease-Fire in Syria, but Adds a Warning," New York Times, February 29, 2016.

24.

See, e.g., Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israel, Russia Conclude First Round of Deconfliction Talks," Defense News, October 7, 2015.

25.

Barak Ravid, "Israel Asks Russia to Revise Military Coordination Due to New Russian S-300 Missiles in Syria," haaretz.com, October 17, 2016; Amos Harel, "Without Effort, Russia Restricted the Strongest Air Force in the Middle East," haaretz.com, October 23, 2016.

26.

Nazir Majli, "Russia Admits Drone Entered Israeli Airspace," Asharq al Awsat Online, August 8, 2016.

27.

Micah Halpern, "Swaggering Syria Shoots at Israeli Jets, Flying Toward War?" observer.com, September 15, 2016.

28.

William Booth, "Ten years after last Lebanon war, Israel warns next one will be far worse," washingtonpost.com, July 23, 2016; Identical letters dated May 27, 2015, from the Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council, U.N. Document S/2015/382, May 27, 2015; Isabel Kershner, "Israel Says Hezbollah Military Sites Put Lebanese Civilians at Risk," New York Times, May 13, 2015. Adam Entous, et al., "Hezbollah Upgrades Missile Threat to Israel," Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2014.

29.

See, e.g., Booth, "Ten years after last Lebanon war…," op. cit.; Neri Zilber, "Hezbollah Claims a 'Nuclear Option' in Tense Standoff with Israel," Daily Beast, March 3, 2016; Amos Harel, "Israel's Unlikely Place in a Rapidly Changing Middle East," haaretz.com, March 7, 2016.

30.

Harel, "Without Effort, Russia Restricted the Strongest Air Force in the Middle East," op. cit.; Nour Samaha, "Hezbollah's Death Valley," foreignpolicy.com, March 3, 2016.

31.

Isabel Kershner, "Beyond Borders, Israel Sees a New World of Chaos, Tunnels and Terror," New York Times, February 12, 2016; "Israel and Islamic State: The caliphate eyes the holy land," Economist, January 23, 2016; David Ignatius, "In Middle East, a Serious Game of War," Washington Post, January 27, 2016.

32.

See footnote 11.

33.

See, e.g., Alex Fishman, "Hamas is funding Islamic State in Sinai," Ynetnews, December 14, 2015; Ronen Bergman, "The battle over Sinai: ISIS's next strong force," Ynet Magazine, December 25, 2015.

34.

See, e.g., "Kosher Copenhagen deli targeted in anti-Semitic attack," Times of Israel, April 9, 2015; "Brussels Jewish Museum killings: Suspect 'admitted attack,'" BBC News, June 1, 2014.

35.

"Islamic State head: 'Palestine will be graveyard' for Jews," Times of Israel, December 26, 2015; ISIS in Sinai threatens Jews, Israel and Rome in new video

36.

See, e.g., Will McCants, "ISIS and Israel," jihadica.com, November 6, 2015; Isabel Kershner and Diaa Hadid, "5 Palestinian Israelis, Said to Be ISIS Supporters, Are Held," New York Times, December 10, 2015.

37.

"Israel Kills Palestinian Who Wounded Soldier in West Bank," Voice of America, September 17, 2016. Some U.S. citizens have been killed or injured, prompting the State Department to issue an August 23, 2016, security message to U.S. citizens for Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings/israel-travel-warning.html).

38.

Yoav Zitun, "Attack highlights West Bank infiltrators," Ynetnews, June 9, 2016.

39.

Israeli Prime Minister's Office, "PM Netanyahu Orders that Palestinian Authority Payments to Terrorists and their Families be Deducted from Tax Revenue Transfers to the PA," July 1, 2016. Israel periodically delays or withhold tax revenue transfers to the PA over security or political concerns or disputes. Palestinians and some international observers assert that the 1994 Paris Protocol governing such transfers does not permit Israeli delays or withholding. The PA transfers alluded to by the prime minister's office presumably refer to Palestinian payments to persons imprisoned by Israel for terrorism and those persons' families.

In 2014, the Palestinians reportedly shifted the responsibility for making these payments from the PA to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) budget, largely in order to defuse concerns among the PA's international donors about perceptions that the donors might be indirectly associated with the prisoner-related payments. CRS Report RS22967, U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians, by [author name scrubbed].

40.

Yoav Zitun and Tova Tzimuki, "Lieberman unveils 'carrot and stick' plan against terror," Ynetnews, August 17, 2016.

41.

See, e.g., Report by the international Quartet (United States, European Union, U.N. Secretary General's office, Russia), dated July 1, 2016, available at http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/259262.htm; and a Quartet statement dated September 23, 2016, available at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/09/262344.htm.

42.

In 2008, Congress enacted legislation requiring that any proposed U.S. arms sale to "any country in the Middle East other than Israel" must include a notification to Congress with a "determination that the sale or export of such would not adversely affect Israel's QME over military threats to Israel." §36(h) of the Arms Export Control Act, which contains the QME requirement, was added by §201(d) of the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-429).

43.

See, e.g., Yossi Melman, "High Stakes Poker," Jerusalem Report, May 2, 2016.

44.

Josh Rogin, "U.S.-Israel deal held up over dispute with Lindsey Graham," washingtonpost.com, September 11, 2016.

45.

"Israel, US said to resolve key sticking points on aid deal," Times of Israel, August 1, 2016.

46.

White House, "FACT SHEET: Memorandum of Understanding Reached with Israel," September 14, 2016.

47.

Nathan Guttman, "ANALYSIS: $38B Israel Aid Deal Is Political Boon for Benjamin Netanyahu — and Barack Obama," Jewish Daily Forward, September 15, 2016. For information on debate regarding the MOU in Israel, see Yossi Melman, "An Unprecedented Deal?" Jerusalem Report, October 16, 2016.

48.

"Israel, US said to resolve key sticking points on aid deal," Times of Israel, August 1, 2016.

49.

Guttman, op. cit.; Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "U.S. and Israel Seal Huge Military Aid Deal," New York Times, September 14, 2016.

50.

Josh Rogin, "Obama and Israel cut Congress out of the aid game," washingtonpost.com, September 14, 2016.

51.

Kristina Wong, "Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense," The Hill, July 26, 2016.

52.

Both the House and the Senate versions would increase funding from Administration requested levels for the Iron Dome system from $42 million to $62 million, for David's Sling from $37.2 million to $266.5 million, for Arrow 2 from $10.8 million to $67.3 million, and for Arrow 3 from $55.8 million to $204.9 million. For some information on the Congress-Administration dynamics of the process regarding FY2017 funding, see Julian Pecquet, "Obama, Congress hurtle toward showdown over Israel missile defense," Al-Monitor Congress Pulse, April 27, 2016.

53Settlements and Diplomatic Initiatives Settlements Overview

Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians have settled in territory that the Israel has occupied militarily since that year's Arab-Israeli war. Approximately 371,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, with nearly 212,000 more in East Jerusalem.4 These residential communities are located in areas that Palestinians claim as part of their envisioned future state. Israelis who defend the settlements' legitimacy generally cite some combination of legal, historical, strategic, nationalistic, or religious justifications, although Israeli opinion varies about different types of settlements in different locations.5

Since Israeli settlement construction began, it has attracted U.S. and international criticism. The international community generally considers Israeli construction on territory occupied in the 1967 war to be illegal.6 For background on the issue and U.S. policy, see CRS Report RL33476, Israel: Background and U.S. Relations, by [author name scrubbed].

In July 2016, the United States and other members of the international Quartet7 (European Union, Russia, the U.N. Secretary-General) released a report saying, among other things, that the "continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion, designation of land for exclusive Israeli use, and denial of Palestinian development is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution."8 In September 2016, Quartet representatives released a statement reiterating their opposition to settlement construction and expansion, and further specifying concerns with regard to "the retroactive 'legalization' of existing units."9

Some Israeli leaders have openly anticipated that after President-elect Trump's inauguration, the U.S. stance would be less critical of official Israeli actions and statements on settlements and other Palestinian-related issues. In this context, Israeli officials have continued announcing settlement plans or construction-related activities, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has supported the advancement of legislation in the Knesset (known as the "Regulation Law") that would expropriate private Palestinian property in order to provide a basis for the legality (under Israeli law) of some settlement outposts. Additionally, after Israel's Supreme Court ruled that an Israeli outpost in the West Bank known as Amona had to be evacuated and demolished because it was built on land privately owned by Palestinians, the Netanyahu government reached a deal in December 2016 to resettle its residents on West Bank land that may also be subject to private Palestinian land ownership claims.10

UNSCR 2334 and Past U.N. Security Council Activity

On December 23, 2016, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 by a vote of 14 in favor, zero against, and one abstention by the United States. The resolution, among other things:

  • Reaffirms that settlements established by Israel in "Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem," constitute "a flagrant violation under international law" and a "major obstacle" to a two-state solution and a "just, lasting and comprehensive peace."
  • Reiterates the Council's demand that Israel "immediately and completely cease all settlement activities."
  • Underlines that the Council will not recognize changes to 1949-1967 armistice lines demarcating the West Bank other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.
  • Calls upon all states to "distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967."
  • Calls for immediate steps to prevent acts of violence against civilians and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.
  • Calls upon both parties to act on the basis of international law and their previous agreements and obligations, and to "refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric."
  • Urges the intensification and acceleration of international and regional diplomatic efforts and support aimed at achieving a "comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East."

In 1980, UNSCR 465, which was adopted unanimously, had determined that Israel's practices of settling parts of its population in territories occupied since 1967 constituted a "flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War." Some subsequent UNSCRs featured language appearing to criticize settlements.11

In February 2011, the United States vetoed a draft UNSCR—approved by all 14 other members of the Security Council—that would have characterized Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal, and demanded cessation of settlement activities. The draft did not contain language similar to UNSCR 2334 condemning terrorism and calling for actors to prevent violence and refrain from incitement.12 Susan Rice, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, clarified that despite its veto, the Obama Administration still opposed settlement construction as illegitimate and at cross-purposes with peace efforts.13

Also, on December 30, 2014, a Palestinian-backed, U.S.-opposed U.N. Security Council draft resolution regarding some contentious Israeli-Palestinian issues garnered only eight of the required nine votes for adoption.14

Prior to the February 2011 U.S. veto, other Administrations had vetoed several draft UNSCRs relating to Israel, including 1983 and 1997 draft UNSCRs relating specifically to settlements.15

Various observers and policymakers have debated the impact of UNSCR 2334. One media report characterized UNSCR 2334 as "largely symbolic" because it did not include specific references to sanctions or other punitive measures against Israel.16 On January 5, 2017, the House passed H.Res. 11, which objected to UNSCR 2334 and the Obama Administration's abstention, by a 340-80 vote (with four voting "present"). A similar resolution, S.Res. 6, has been introduced in the Senate, and was co-sponsored by 47 Senators as of January 6. On September 20, 2016, 88 Senators had signed a letter to Obama urging him to "make it clear that you will veto any one-sided UNSC resolution that may be offered in the coming months … whether focused on settlements or other final-status issues."17 In April 2016, 394 Representatives had signed a similar letter to President Obama.18 The Kerry Speech and Principles

Following the adoption of UNSCR 2334, Secretary Kerry gave a speech to explain the U.S. abstention and to set forth six principles as a possible basis for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He stated:

We've made countless public and private exhortations to the Israelis to stop the march of settlements…. Yet the settlement activity just increased, including advancing the unprecedented legislation to legalize settler outposts that the prime minister himself reportedly warned could expose Israel to action at the Security Council and even international prosecution before deciding to support it.

In the end, we could not in good conscience protect the most extreme elements of the settler movement as it tries to destroy the two-state solution. We could not in good conscience turn a blind eye to Palestinian actions that fan hatred and violence. It is not in U.S. interest to help anyone on either side create a unitary state. And we may not be able to stop them, but we cannot be expected to defend them. And it is certainly not the role of any country to vote against its own policies.

That is why we decided not to block the UN resolution that makes clear both sides have to take steps to save the two-state solution while there is still time. And we did not take this decision lightly. The Obama Administration has always defended Israel against any effort at the UN and any international fora or biased and one-sided resolutions that seek to undermine its legitimacy or security, and that has not changed. It didn't change with this vote.

But remember it's important to note that every United States administration, Republican and Democratic, has opposed settlements as contrary to the prospects for peace, and action at the UN Security Council is far from unprecedented. In fact, previous administrations of both political parties have allowed resolutions that were critical of Israel to pass, including on settlements.19

The six principles Kerry stated as a possible basis for future negotiations were:

  • 1. Borders. Provide for secure and recognized international borders between Israel and a viable and contiguous Palestine, negotiated based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed equivalent swaps.
  • 2. Two states. Fulfill the vision of the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 of two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab, with mutual recognition and full equal rights for all their respective citizens.
  • 3. Palestinian refugees. Provide for a just, agreed, fair, and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, with international assistance, that includes compensation, options and assistance in finding permanent homes, acknowledgment of suffering, and other measures necessary for a comprehensive resolution consistent with two states for two peoples.
  • 4. Jerusalem. Provide an agreed resolution for Jerusalem as the internationally recognized capital of the two states, and protect and assure freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo.
  • 5. Security. Satisfy Israel's security needs and bring a full end, ultimately, to the occupation, while ensuring that Israel can defend itself effectively and that Palestine can provide security for its people in a sovereign and non-militarized state.
  • 6. End of conflict. End the conflict and all outstanding claims, enabling normalized relations and enhanced regional security for all as envisaged by the Arab Peace Initiative.20

Kerry reportedly intends to participate in a January 2017 international conference in France aimed at encouraging the resumption of negotiations.

Statements and Reactions

President-elect Trump publicly advocated a U.S. veto of UNSCR 2344 before the vote,21 and indicated after the vote and the Kerry speech that his approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues would be different.22 Prime Minster Netanyahu vehemently denounced the resolution and expressed his enthusiasm to work with the Trump Administration. Netanyahu also took diplomatic measures to show displeasure with the various countries involved in the vote.

On December 27, a Netanyahu spokesman said that Israel had "ironclad information" showing that the Obama Administration "helped craft this resolution and pushed hard for its eventual passage."23 In a press briefing the same day, the State Department spokesperson said that the United States did not draft the resolution or put it forward, but that:

…as the draft [of] the text was circulated, we said to those on the Security Council that – what further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And in fact, we ended up abstaining because we didn't feel it was balanced enough in the sense of it didn't hit hard enough on the incitement-to-violence side of the coin.

According to one media account, the Obama Administration "acknowledged that it considered the possibility of abstaining on a settlements resolution over the past year as various drafts were circulated by different countries."24

Reactions to UNSCR 2344 and Kerry's speech have varied. Many Israeli leaders—particularly from parties within Netanyahu's governing coalition—have criticized the U.S. and international actions. Some Israeli leaders—particularly from the opposition—have blamed Netanyahu for policies that they claim fueled the U.S. and international initiatives.25 Many European leaders have welcomed the Obama Administration's actions, while some Arab observers have questioned what impact such actions can have in light of the impending presidential transition.26

In line with the earlier-mentioned letters to President Obama signed by large majorities in the Senate and House (in the 114th Congress), several Members of Congress have voiced displeasure with the U.S. abstention on UNSCR 2334 and with the Kerry speech. For example, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer was quoted as stating, "While he may not have intended it, I fear Secretary Kerry, in his speech and action at the UN, has emboldened extremists on both sides."27 Observers debate the extent to which some Members of Congress may quietly approve of Obama Administration criticism of settlements or some other Israeli policies.28

Possible Implications

The consequences of recent U.S. and international actions are unclear. Will they substantively increase international leverage against Israel in its settlement activities or more broadly? Will they lead to greater determination among right-of-center Israeli leaders to disregard or actively challenge international initiatives or pressure via unilateral Israeli actions? Beyond the initiatives' specific scope, will they have wider ripple effects on Israeli-Palestinian and regional dynamics?

Past "Lame Duck" U.S. Diplomatic Initiatives on Israeli-Palestinian Issues

Reagan Administration. In December 1988, during the first Palestinian intifada (or uprising, which lasted roughly from 1987 to 1991), the United States authorized the start of substantive U.S. dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), as Vice President/President-elect George H.W. Bush prepared to take office. After subsequent diplomatic efforts by the Bush and Clinton Administrations, Israel and the PLO began the Oslo peace process with the Declaration of Principles in September 1993.

Clinton Administration. After unsuccessful U.S.-mediated efforts at an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 (which would last roughly until 2005), President Clinton proposed the "Clinton Parameters" in a December 23, 2000, speech.29 The parameters were intended to bridge gaps between the two sides' positions, but the sides did not reach agreement before Clinton left office. The parameters continue to influence negotiating proposals and debate over possible outcomes.

George W. Bush Administration. Although substantive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians ended before the November 2008 U.S. presidential elections, the "Annapolis process" launched by President Bush in November 2007, as an attempt to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008, nominally continued until the outbreak of a conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in late December 2008. Bush Administration officials were active in efforts throughout the conflict to support Israel while also encouraging the cease-fire that went into effect on January 18, 2009, days before President Obama's inauguration.

Following the adoption of UNSCR 2334, Palestinian leaders indicated that they will campaign "to require that other countries not just label products made in the settlements, but ban them."30 Palestinian Authority (PA) Foreign Minister Riad Malki also talked about using the resolution to facilitate possible boycotts, lawsuits, and efforts to press the International Criminal Court (ICC) to prosecute Israeli officials.31

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu has outwardly cultivated the image that Trump's accession will strengthen Netanyahu's hand internationally, and that other countries are unlikely to threaten Israel with harmful isolation due to Israel's value as a trade, defense, and intelligence partner.32 Observers question whether Netanyahu will come under increasing pressure to choose between his previous support-in-principle for a two-state solution and more right-leaning policies being pushed domestically.33 Prominent Israeli pro-settler leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett has stepped up his calls for Israel to abandon the two-state solution and either annex or effectively annex large swaths of the West Bank that are now populated by Israeli settlers.34 Bennett stated in early January 2017 that, after Trump's inauguration, Bennett would sponsor a bill to annex the Ma'ale Adumim settlement, which is located slightly eastward of Israel's municipal boundary for Jerusalem.35

Various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appear unchanged by recent diplomatic developments. Israel maintains overarching control of the security environment in Israel and the West Bank. Palestinians remain divided between a PA administration with limited self-rule in specified West Bank urban areas, led by the Fatah movement and President Mahmoud Abbas, and a de facto Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip. Both the PA and Hamas face major questions regarding future leadership and succession. There has been little or no change in the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions on key issues of dispute since the last round of direct talks broke down in April 2014. Since 2011, Arab states that have traditionally championed the Palestinian cause have been more preoccupied with their own internal concerns, and many have built or strengthened informal ties with Israel based on common concerns regarding Iran and its regional influence.

Presidential Transition and U.S. Policy Options

As Trump prepares to take office, reports indicate that his close advisors on Israeli issues include his chief strategist Stephen Bannon, son-in-law Jared Kushner, and lawyer David Friedman—his proposed nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.36 Friedman's nomination—subject to Senate approval—has attracted attention because of his past statements and financial efforts in support of Israeli settlements in the West Bank,37 and his sharp criticism of the Obama Administration, some Members of Congress, and some American Jews.38

Speculation surrounds what actions the President-elect and Congress might take on Israeli-Palestinian issues in the coming months. Friedman and a number of other aides have stated that the President-elect is serious about implementing his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (discussed below). Trump has stated aspirations to help broker a final-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Other possible presidential or legislative initiatives could address:

  • U.S. aid to Israel and the Palestinians.
  • Standing U.S. policy on a two-state solution and other issues of dispute.
  • U.S. contributions to and participation at the United Nations and other international bodies.
  • U.S. approaches to other regional and international actors that have roles on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
U.S. Embassy Move to Jerusalem? Background

Successive U.S. Administrations of both political parties since 1948 have maintained that the fate of Jerusalem is to be decided by negotiations and have discouraged the parties from taking actions that could prejudice the final outcome of those negotiations. The Palestinians envisage East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. However, the House of Representatives passed H.Con.Res. 60 in June 1997, and the Senate passed S.Con.Res. 21 in May 1997. Both resolutions called on the Clinton Administration to affirm that Jerusalem must remain the undivided capital of Israel.

A related issue is the possible relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Proponents argue that Israel is the only country where a U.S. embassy is not in the capital identified by the host country, that Israel's claim to West Jerusalem—where an embassy may be located—is unquestioned, and/or that Palestinians must be disabused of their hope for a capital in Jerusalem. Opponents say such a move would undermine prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace and U.S. credibility with Palestinians and in the Muslim world, and could prejudge the final status of the city. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 (P.L. 104-45) provided for the embassy's relocation by May 31, 1999, but granted the President authority, in the national security interest, to suspend limitations on State Department expenditures that would be imposed if the embassy did not open. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have consistently suspended these spending limitations, and the embassy has remained in Tel Aviv. President Obama issued the most recent six-month suspension of limitations on December 1, 2016.39

Over successive Congresses, various Members have periodically introduced substantially similar versions of a Jerusalem Embassy and Recognition Act or thematically related bills or resolutions. Such bills and resolutions seek the embassy's relocation and would remove or advocate the removal of the President's authority to suspend the State Department expenditure limitations cited above. New versions (S. 11, H.R. 257, and H.R. 265) were introduced in January 2017.

Prospective Trump Administration Action and Potential Reaction

As a candidate, Donald Trump—like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush when they were presidential candidates—pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem. As mentioned above, since the election a number of Trump's top aides—including David Friedman, his proposed nominee to be U.S. ambassador to Israel—have stated that the President-elect intends to follow through on the campaign pledge, but one aide stated in November 2016 that he would "create consensus at home" before making the change.40

Media sources and other observers have speculated about how the incoming Administration might logistically handle an embassy move. They have discussed the use of sites owned or leased by the U.S. government as possible venues for an embassy in Jerusalem.41 They have also raised the possibility of Trump designating the existing U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem (which currently only deals with Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza) as an embassy or an embassy annex.42

Figure 2. Selected Key Sites in Jerusalem

Source: Those stated in the graphic and Times of Israel.

Notes: All locations and lines are approximate. Unofficial media reports, as well as official U.S. government information provided to CRS in 2013 regarding U.S. government ownership or leasing of property in Jerusalem, contribute to the designation of possible future U.S. diplomatic sites.

1.

See, e.g., Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Obama Doctrine," The Atlantic, April 2016; Jason M. Breslow, "Dennis Ross: Obama, Netanyahu Have a 'Backdrop of Distrust,'" PBS Frontline, January 6, 2016; Sarah Moughty, "Michael Oren: Inside Obama-Netanyahu's Relationship," PBS Frontline, January 6, 2016.

2.

Amir Oren, "Only a Surprise Can Save Netanyahu from an Indictment," Ha'aretz, January 3, 2017.

3.

Rory Jones, "Netanyahu Rejects Allegations of Graft," Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2017.

4.

CIA World Factbook estimates as of 2014.

5.

For more information on the history of the settlements and their impact on Israeli society, see Naval Postgraduate School, Religious Zionism and Israeli Settlement Policy, 2014; Charles Selengut, Our Promised Land: Faith and Militant Zionism in Israeli Settlements, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015; Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, New York: Times Books, 2006.

6.

The most-cited international law pertaining to Israeli settlements is the Fourth Geneva Convention, Part III, Section III, Article 49 Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, August 12, 1949, which states in its last sentence, "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Israel counters that the West Bank does not fall under the international law definition of "occupied territory," but is rather "disputed territory" because the previous occupying power (Jordan) did not have an internationally recognized claim to it. Israel claims that, given the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the end of the British Mandate in 1948, Israel claims that no international actor has a superior legal claim.

7.

The Quartet formed in 2002 as an effort by the members to pool their efforts in mitigating conflict and promoting the peace process.

8.

The report, dated July 1, 2016, is available at http://www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/259262.htm. It also lamented terrorist attacks against civilians and Palestinian incitement to violence.

9.

The statement is available at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2016/09/262344.htm.

10.

Isabel Kershner, "Israel Reaches Deal to Move an Illegal West Bank Settlement," New York Times, December 19, 2016.

11.

See, e.g., https://peacenow.org/WP/wp-content/uploads/US-Israel-UNSCRs-1967-present.pdf.

12.

For an analysis, see Michal Hatuel Radoshitzky, "Analysis: Four factors that paved the way for UN vote on settlements," jpost.com, December 27, 2016.

13.

"United States vetoes Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements," UN News Centre, February 18, 2011.

14.

U.N. Press Release: "Resolution in Security Council to Impose 12-Month Deadline on Negotiated Solution to Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Unable to Secure Nine Votes Needed for Adoption," December 30, 2014. Among other issues, the draft resolution would have affirmed "the urgent need" to attain a negotiated two-state solution within 12 months, and would have "decided" that the solution was to be based on a number of parameters, including "a full and phased withdrawal of the Israeli occupying forces, which will end the occupation that began in 1967 over an agreed transition period in a reasonable timeframe, not to exceed the end of 2017." See the text of the draft resolution at http://unispal.un.org/unispal.nsf/5ba47a5c6cef541b802563e000493b8c/a12252711015996d85257dbf00536b1c?OpenDocument.

15.

Jewish Virtual Library, U.N. Security Council: U.S. Vetoes of Resolutions Critical to Israel.

16.

Josef Federman, "Israel's Humbled Benjamin Netanyahu Places Hopes in Donald Trump," Associated Press, December 25, 2016.

17.

The text of the letter is available at https://www.gillibrand.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/senators-gillibrand-and-rounds-lead-bipartisan-initiative-urging-president-obama-to-reject-and-if-needed-veto-any-one-sided-resolutions-at-the-united-nations.

18.

Its text is available at http://kaygranger.house.gov/sites/granger.house.gov/files/Letter%20to%20President%20Obama%20supporting%20direct%20negotiations%20%E2%80%93%20signed%20by%20394%20Members%20of%20Congress_1.pdf.

19.

State Department transcript of Kerry's remarks, Washington, DC, December 28, 2016.

20.

The Arab Peace Initiative offers a comprehensive Arab peace with Israel if Israel were to withdraw fully from the territories it occupied in 1967, agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, and provide for the "[a]chievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." The initiative was proposed by Saudi Arabia, adopted by the 22-member Arab League (which includes the PLO), and later accepted by the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) at its 2005 Mecca summit. The text of the initiative is available at http://www.bitterlemons.org/docs/summit.html.

21.

Peter Baker, "President-Elect Moves to Shape Mideast Policy," New York Times, December 23, 2016.

22.

"Trump after Kerry speech: Israel treated 'very, very unfairly,'" Jewish Telegraphic Agency, December 30, 2016.

23.

Josef Federman, "Israel: 'Ironclad information' White House behind UN rebuke," Associated Press, December 27, 2016.

24.

Ibid.

25.

Mazal Mualem, "UN anti-settlement resolution wake-up call for Israelis," Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, December 28, 2016; "Israeli officials: US abstention was Obama's 'last sting,' showed his 'true face,'" Times of Israel, December 24, 2016.

26.

Jonathan Martin, "Kerry's Blunt Words for Israel Denounced by Lawmakers in Both Parties," New York Times, December 28, 2016.

27.

Mark Hensch, "Schumer: Kerry 'emboldened extremists on both sides,'" The Hill, December 28, 2016.

28.

Betsy Woodruff, "Will John Kerry's Israel Speech Tear the Democrats Apart?" Daily Beast, December 29, 2016.

29.

http://cmep.org/content/clinton-parameters-december-23-2000.

30.

Peter Baker, "A Defiant Israel Vows to Expand Its Settlements," New York Times, December 27, 2016.

31.

Ibid. For more information on ICC action regarding the "situation in Palestine," see CRS Report RS22967, U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians, by [author name scrubbed].

32.

Raphael Ahren, "For the PM, there is no damage Obama could do that Trump could not undo," Times of Israel, December 27, 2016.

33.

Isabel Kershner, "Israel Wonders How Long Netanyahu Can Back Settlements and Two-State Solution," New York Times, December 25, 2016.

34.

Mualem, op. cit.

35.

Rory Jones, "Israel Lawmakers Plan to Push Annexation Bill," Wall Street Journal, January 3, 2017.

36.

Karen DeYoung, "For Obama, abstention at U.N. was a no-risk move," Washington Post, December 29, 2016; Matthew Rosenberg, "Trump Chooses Hard-Liner as Ambassador to Israel," New York Times, December 15, 2016.

37.

Judy Maltz, "David Friedman Raised Millions for Radical West Bank Jewish Settlers," Ha'aretz, December 16, 2016.

38.

See, e.g., Rosenberg, op. cit.

39.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/01/presidential-determination-suspension-limitations-under-jerusalem.

40.

Daniel Estrin, "Trump Favors Moving U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Despite Backlash Fears," NPR, November 15, 2016.

41.

Raphael Ahren, "Jerusalem of Trump: Where the president-elect might put the US embassy," Times of Israel, December 13, 2016; Tamar Pileggi, "Trump's team already exploring logistics of moving embassy to Jerusalem — report," Times of Israel, December 12, 2016.

42.

Efraim Cohen, "How Trump Could Make Quick Move to Jerusalem for U.S. Israel Embassy," New York Sun, December 13, 2016.

43.

Jonathan Schanzer, quoted in Eli Lake, "Israel Needs Its Arab Friends More Than U.S. Embassy Move," Bloomberg, December 21, 2016.

44.

Lake, op. cit.

45.

Danny Seidemann, "Moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem: A Hard Look at the Arguments and Implications," Insiders' Jerusalem, January 3, 2017. See Article V, Section 3 of the Oslo Accord, which states that permanent status negotiations "shall cover remaining issues, including: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors, and other issues of common interest." http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Peace/Guide/Pages/Declaration%20of%20Principles.aspx Israel and the PLO were the two parties to the Oslo Accord. The United States and Russia both witnessed the document.

46.

Ibid.

47.

Amiad Cohen, "Please, America, Move Your Embassy to Jerusalem," nytimes.com, December 27, 2016.

48.

"Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem," Economist, December 24, 2016.

49.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/legislative/sap/114/saphr5293r_20160614.pdf?elqTrackId=6EC9CEC95DE185EB4389F47C7BDB2988&elq=b8956db884d14431acb7ea48bb94f526&elqaid=19132&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=11805.

54.

See, e.g., Michael Wilner, "The White House missile aid objection: An MOU negotiating tactic?" jpost.com, June 19, 2016.

55.

Kramer, op. cit.

56.

Mazal Mualem (translated from Hebrew), "How the once-moderate Likud was radicalized," Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, April 8, 2016.

57.

"Herzog: Reports of progress toward unity government 'a complete lie,'" Times of Israel, October 4, 2016.

58.

Ben Caspit, "Is Bibi's massive fundraising network about to collapse?" Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, July 20, 2016. According to one source, "Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu's predecessor as prime minister, was forced to resign in 2009 over bribery allegations and is now serving a 19-month sentence in prison, while possibly facing further convictions." "Israel's prime minister: The law looms larger," Economist, July 16, 2016:

59.

"Israeli military finds its independent voice under attack," Christian Science Monitor, May 9, 2016.

60.

The shooter, Sgt. Elor Azaria, is being tried for manslaughter in an Israeli military court amid controversy over whether the shooter might have reasonably believed that the wounded Palestinian presented a threat.

61.

"Israel Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon Quits, Says Can't Trust PM Netanyahu," Associated Press, May 20, 2016.

62.

Judah Ari Gross, "Barak flogs Netanyahu, laments 'budding fascism' in Israel," Times of Israel, June 16, 2016.

63.

"After contentious debate, Knesset passes NGO law," Times of Israel, July 12, 2016.

64.

Ruth Levush, "Israel: Laws Authorize Expulsion of Lawmakers Engaged in Incitement to Racism or Support of Armed Struggle Against the State," Law Library of Congress Global Legal Monitor, July 21, 2016.

65.

"Knesset passes law allowing expulsion of lawmakers," Jewish Telegraphic Agency, July 20, 2016.

66.

"Only Four of 20 Israeli Ministers Openly Declare Support of Two-state Solution," haaretz.com, June 27, 2016.

67.

Jonathan Lis, "Labor Adopts Herzog's Plan for Separation from Palestinians as Party Platform," haaretz.com, February 8, 2016.

68.

Uri Savir, "Obama's three diplomatic options for Mideast peace," Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, October 16, 2016. France hosted a June 2016 conference of foreign ministers (including Secretary of State Kerry) that reportedly established working groups to craft terms of reference for a possible future resumption of negotiations. Leslie Susser, "The Netanyahu enigma," Jerusalem Report, June 26, 2016.

69.

White House, Statement by the President on the Memorandum of Understanding Reached with Israel, September 14, 2016.

70.

Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Obama Prods Netanyahu After Signing of U.S.-Israel Deal," New York Times, September 15, 2016.

71.

The text of the letter is available at https://www.gillibrand.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/senators-gillibrand-and-rounds-lead-bipartisan-initiative-urging-president-obama-to-reject-and-if-needed-veto-any-one-sided-resolutions-at-the-united-nations. 394 Representatives signed a similar letter to President Obama in April 2016. Its text is available at http://kaygranger.house.gov/sites/granger.house.gov/files/Letter%20to%20President%20Obama%20supporting%20direct%20negotiations%20%E2%80%93%20signed%20by%20394%20Members%20of%20Congress_1.pdf.

72.

Zvi Magen and Udi Dekel, "Russia's Initiative on the Israeli-Palestinian Process: Another Move to Regain Influence in the Middle East," Institute for National Security Studies Insight No. 853, September 13, 2016.

73.

Susser, "The Netanyahu enigma," op. cit.

74.

See, e.g., Uri Savir (translated from Hebrew), "Have Arab leaders forgotten about Palestine?" Al-Monitor Israel Pulse, July 10, 2016.

75.

See, e.g., Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, "How far can they go?," Jerusalem Report, June 27, 2016. The Arab Peace Initiative offers a comprehensive Arab peace with Israel if Israel were to withdraw fully from the territories it occupied in 1967, agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem, and provide for the "[a]chievement of a just solution to the Palestinian Refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194." The initiative was proposed by Saudi Arabia, adopted by the 22-member Arab League (which includes the PLO), and later accepted by the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) at its 2005 Mecca summit. The text of the initiative is available at http://www.bitterlemons.org/docs/summit.html.

76.

For text of the Executive Board resolution, see http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002462/246215e.pdf. For information about the World Heritage Committee resolution, see Barak Ravid, "UNESCO Adopts Another Contentious Resolution on Jerusalem," haaretz.com, October 26, 2016.

77.

Raoul Wootliff, "UNESCO's executive board adopts Jerusalem resolution," Times of Israel, October 18, 2016.

78.

Statement by the Director-General of UNESCO on the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, a UNESCO World Heritage site, October 14, 2016.

79.

Adnan Abu Amer (translated from Arabic), "Is the PA coordinating arrests with Israel?," Al-Monitor Palestine Pulse, April 28, 2016; Joshua Davidovich, "Days of death and destruction," Times of Israel, July 3, 2016.

80.

Ben Lynfield, "Creating chaos," Jerusalem Report, September 5, 2016.