Trump administration officials were caught off guard this week when they learned Israel was rolling out yet more plans for settlement construction in the West Bank, just as they were setting a date for Benjamin Netanyahu’s first official meeting with Donald Trump in Washington.
Israel had not run its massive housing announcements by the White House – and the administration quickly came to believe they were boxing the new president in. Trump and his team were first starting to formulate his vision for peace in the region and America’s role in brokering it as they laid the groundwork for Netanyahu’s visit.
White House officials privately acknowledged that their silence on the issue of Israeli settlement activity was interpreted in Israel as carte blanche to proceed with new construction, full speed. But it did not expect the Israeli government would act quite so boldly or quite so fast. It was the second announcement over the course of a week, of 3,000 new housing units in addition to a prior 2,500, which convinced them of the need to issue a warning.
An early draft of their response was leaked to The Jerusalem Post
on Thursday, which warned Israel against “undermining” Trump’s efforts to forge peace with additional “unilateral” actions, including settlement announcements.
David Friedman at Pro-Trump rally in Jerusalem before elections: A Trump administration will never pressure Israel into two-state solution (credit: REUTERS)
“The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward,” the administration said. “The United States remains committed to advancing a comprehensive final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that results in two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”
Within two hours, virtually every major American media outlet sought to confirm the original report, forcing the White House into a scramble as they finalized the language of their response. They settled on familiar phrasing employed by past administrations: The expansion of existing settlements or the construction of new ones “may not be helpful” to the pursuit of peace, the White House said in an official release.
Settlements as they currently exist “are not an impediment” to a peace agreement with the Palestinians, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer added.
But over the course of the day, “may not be helpful” hardened into “are not helpful;” and “are not an obstacle” softened into “shouldn’t be an obstacle.”
“We’re going to have a long discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he’s here,” Spicer told MSNBC.
Israeli officials have long argued that settlements are not an obstacle to peace for two reasons: because the government is willing to pull settlers out of the West Bank should it reach a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians, and because Jewish settlers who choose to stay in a future Palestinian state should have the freedom to do so. The real obstacle to peace is more fundamental, they contend: The Palestinians’ refusal to recognize the Jewish homeland within any borders.
The Trump administration sought to accommodate this position in its official response. But its first instinct was to question the reasoning of Israel’s argument – a significant development, given the prevailing impression that Trump had already embraced the settler movement.
The Prime Minister’s Office responded to the White House by acknowledging that Netanyahu will soon endure another “long discussion” on settlements in the Oval Office.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu looks forward to his meeting with President Trump on February 15, in which they will speak about a wide range of issues, including this one,” it said in a statement.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely gave a more extensive answer, when she said Friday that Israel has an obligation to build in the West Bank. “This government was chosen to execute the rights of the people of Israel to build in all parts of the country,” Hotovely said.
“Even the White House knows that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and never were an obstacle to peace. The obvious conclusion is that the building is not a problem,” Hotovely continued. “During the last 25 [years] the Palestinians have blocked all attempts to resolve [the conflict].”
On the right-wing in Washington, several lawmakers distanced themselves from the White House statement, suggesting Israel’s settlements have little to do with the conflict.
“The obstacle to peace is not the settlements or anything else the Israelis are doing,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) told the Post
. “The obstacle to peace is Palestinian terrorism and the PA’s refusal to denounce it. Sadly, Israel does not currently have a Palestinian partner willing to make peace.”
One pro-settler group, the YESHA Council, thanked Trump for “asserting that our communities were never an impediment to peace.”
“Nothing is more natural and morally just than Jews building in Judea,” said Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the YESHA Council,” referring to the West Bank by its historic name. “We look forward to working closely with our friends in the new Trump administration to build a brighter future for all.”
MK Eitan Broshi of the Zionist Union linked the White House statement to the evacuation of the Amona outpost, located in an isolated spot in the West Bank, even though it was done under a High Court of Justice order.
“The statement shows that the Amona evacuation was justified and that we have to build according the law and in agreed-upon areas,” he said, adding that this referred to the security areas and the blocs.
He urged Netanyahu to place the new settlement in the blocs, given that Trump’s message was promoted by the decision to create a new settlement for the 40 families. It would mark the first time Israel has done this since 1991. Israel has promised the US in the past that it would not create new settlements.
Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro tweeted that Trump’s statement “is in continuity with US policy for many years.” Indeed, the press secretary’s formal statement noted that US policy had been consistent for half a century – dating back to 1967.
“Settlements may not be helpful to achieving peace. That’s our Bill,” said former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, referring to the policy approach of his former boss, Bill Clinton.
Netanyahu’s trip to Washington will be Netanyahu’s most significant visit during a month of intensive diplomacy that will also see the prime minister travel to Britain, Singapore and Australia.
Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to London on Sunday for his first meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, since she took office in July.
Government officials in Jerusalem have indicated that this meeting is part of an effort to revive a triangular Israeli-British-US axis that existed to a certain degree in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president in the US, and Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of Britain.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu is likely to hear criticism of recent settlement moves from May. A spokeswoman for May said last week that the talks would focus on the Israeli-British bilateral relationship, including increasing trade as Britain leaves the EU, as well as other “shared challenges.”
She also told reporters, “I would expect the prime minister to set out the government’s position that we think the continued increase in settlement activity undermines trust. Our focus is on how do we make a two-state solution with an Israel that is safe from terrorism and a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign work,” she said.
Britain reportedly played an instrumental role in getting the anti-settlement Security Council Resolution 2334 passed in December, but then a few days later May rebuked former US secretary of state John Kerry for his 70-minute speech highly critical of the settlement enterprise.
She said Britain does “not believe that the way to negotiate peace is by focusing on only one issue, in this case the construction of settlements, when clearly the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so deeply complex.”
Netanyahu said last week that the need to adopt a new approach to Iran will be one of the issues he hopes to discuss with May.
Netanyahu will fly back from Washington to Israel for Shabbat before leaving for Singapore and Australia early Sunday morning on February 19. This will be the first ever visit by a sitting Israeli prime minister to either Singapore or Australia.