The Trump administration late Thursday warned Israel against the construction of new settlements, which it said may be harmful to the peace process.
The White House statement, a surprise to many observers, is a significant blow to those on the Israeli right who had hoped that President Donald Trump would come out as a strong supporter of the settlements. The statement noted that Trump has not taken an official position on Israel’s settlement activity.
“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said in the statement. “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.”
Trump will continue discussions on the topic during Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Washington later this month, Spicer said.
Trump and Netanyahu have been staunch supporters of each other’s policies and governing style, during the U.S. presidential campaign and since Trump took office. Just last week, Netanyahu tweeted his support for the U.S. president after Trump ordered construction of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Netanyahu was among the first world leaders to speak with Trump by phone after the inauguration, and swiftly received an invitation to visit the U.S. capital.
The Obama administration opposed Israel’s settlement construction for years. In his final days in office, President Barack Obama refused to veto a United Nations resolution declaring the settlements illegal.
Once Obama was gone, Netanyahu wasted no time changing course.
Just two days after Trump’s swearing-in ceremony, the Israeli leader told members of his cabinet he planned to lift restrictions on settlement building in East Jerusalem. Since then, Israel has approved the construction of thousands of new settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Media reports on Thursday indicated that Netanyahu may have moved too quickly. The Jerusalem Post reported that the Trump administration was not consulted on the expansions.
A senior Trump official told the newspaper that the administration wants Palestinians and Israelis to refrain from taking unilateral actions, including settlement announcements.
Trump’s past remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the settlements in particular, have been inconsistent.
On the campaign trail in May, Trump was asked if he would pressure Israel to pause settlement construction as part of an effort to renew peace talks with the Palestinians. “I think Israel really have to keep going. They have to keep moving forward,” he said then.
But in December, Trump told The Associated Press he would be “very neutral” in his approach to peace talks. “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things,” he said.