U.S. President Donald Trump, who vowed unwavering support for Israel during his campaign, told the Israeli government that building new settlements in disputed territory in the West Bank may complicate attempts to reach a peace with the Palestinians.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement released Thursday night in Washington.
Although previous U.S. administrations have characterized Israel’s settlement construction as an obstacle to the peace process, the statement appears to mark a softening of the American position. During his presidential campaign, Trump criticized then-President Barack Obama’s treatment of Israel and made support of the Jewish state a centerpiece of his foreign policy positions. Since Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Israel has announced plans to build more than 6,000 apartments on land Palestinians claim for a state.
Spicer said the administration “has not taken an official position on settlement activity,” but it will be a topic of discussion when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Trump on Feb. 15 at the White House. Netanyahu is looking forward to the meeting, during which he and Trump “will speak about a wide range of issues, including this one,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement on Friday.
Israel’s current government was elected to build homes in all areas, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said in remarks broadcast on radio. She also said the White House statement makes it clear that the Trump administration doesn’t see the settlements as preventing peace.
Israel “sets its own policy,” the country’s envoy to the United Nations Danny Danon said in an interview with Israel Radio on Friday. While the U.S. and Israel may not agree completely on every issue, there is support for Israel in the new administration and the next four years will be better than the last eight for relations between the two countries, he said.
“You have to read between the lines,” Danon said. “A statement that says that settlements are not an impediment to peace wasn’t the type of language that existed in former President Obama’s statements.”
The White House stance shows more openness to settlement construction than that of previous administrations, said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator and vice president at the Wilson Center in Washington. It may disappoint some members of the Israeli right while giving Netanyahu some room to navigate his domestic politics, he said.
“They clearly have watered down American policy on settlement activity that has provided the basis of the American approach for at least the last four administrations,” Miller said. But “they’re not green lighting settlements. It’s a flashing yellow light.”
The U.S. statement was released after Netanyahu said he would erect Israel’s first new settlement in a quarter-century and build thousands of homes across the West Bank. Israeli authorities, acting on a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court, this week evacuated an unsanctioned settler outpost at Amona, a hilltop near the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Israel has authorized more than 120 West Bank settlements, housing about 400,000 people, which the United Nations Security Council last month deemed a “flagrant violation” of international law. Trump blasted the Obama administration’s decision not to block the UN resolution.
During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to be more supportive of the Jewish state, and he has nominated David Friedman, a supporter of settlements, as ambassador to Israel.
Trump also said before taking office that he would consider moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians want as their capital. The fate of the city is among the most sensitive issues Israelis and Palestinians will need to address in any future peace negotiations. Spicer said Jan. 23 that the administration was at the “very early stages” of the decision-making on that issue.
Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, said Thursday’s statement marks a significant shift in tone from the Obama administration. “It reflects the idea that perhaps the Trump White House is more focused on the ultimate goal rather than things that are short of the goal that past administrations have gotten bogged down on. The goal is a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.
The Palestinian representative to the UN, Riyad Mansour, condemned Israel’s new construction plans in a letter to Secretary General Antonio Guterres, accusing Netanyahu of “blatantly exploiting transitions in the global political landscape.”