The White House abruptly changed course in its dealings with Israel Thursday when it issued a statement urging restraint by the Israelis when it comes to building new settlements, a hot button issue regionally and globally. “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,” the White House said in a statement. A senior administration official also tamped down settlement expansion hopes telling the Jerusalem Post Thursday “we urge all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.”
This is in stark contrast to Trump’s tone before taking office. As Slate’s Josh Keating noted last week, Trump’s “campaign explicitly rejected the notion that settlement building is an obstacle to peace or that Israel is occupying the West Bank.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the election of Trump and his bluster as a mandate to expand Jewish settlements deeper into Palestine. “We can build where we want and as much as we want,” Netanyahu said last week after the Israeli government approved 2,500 new housing units in West Bank settlements and hundreds more in East Jerusalem.
“The statement could signal a major disappointment for many on the Israeli right, including senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, who hoped that Trump would abandon the two-state solution and believed his attitude towards settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would be far more supportive than that of Obama,” Haaretz noted. Newly sworn-in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with Netanyahu Thursday, but the details of the conversation aren’t known.
“The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month,” the White House read.