For an entire week the White House mulled how to react to the torrent of announcements from Jerusalem on building thousands of housing units in the settlements. The Trump administration’s statement Thursday night – the team’s first significant comment on the issue – was crafted diplomatically and politely, but the bottom line was perfectly clear. Not only is the Iranian government on warning – so is the Israeli government.
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The White House’s statement also makes clear that even if at this stage there has been a change from Barack Obama’s policy, it isn’t dramatic. Trump is basically reverting to George W. Bush’s policy on the settlements. That is, Donald Trump’s final goal is an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on a two-state solution.
According to the statement, construction in the settlements “may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” The limits Trump discussed are similar to Bush’s – opposition to the establishment of new settlements and a willingness to accept construction in existing settlements only within their current borders. A policy of construction only in the settlement blocs is clearly implied, even if it wasn’t explicitly stated.
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The new policy is only an opening gambit; the statement also stressed that Trump hasn’t yet formulated a final and official policy on the issue. This initial position was made clear publicly even before the Trump administration had a single talk with the Palestinians, and it has hardly discussed the issue in depth with Arab leaders apart from a brief conversation with King Abdullah of Jordan on Thursday.
It’s clear, however, that two weeks after Trump entered the White House and 12 days before his first meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the settlements are once again a major controversial issue in the two countries’ ties. Down the road, U.S. criticism of the settlements could become sharper.
On Thursday, even before the publication of the White House statement, Netanyahu received a phone call from new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who’s likely to be the 2017 model of James Baker and is starting with a blank page in dealing with the peace process.
He has never had to discuss the issue once with any Israeli or any Palestinian. Tillerson’s confirmation is bringing the State Department back into the decision-making process. It’s doubtful there’s any American diplomat who supports construction in the settlements, transferring the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem or annexing the West Bank to Israel.
The White House managed to digest Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s decision a week and a half ago: approval of 2,500 new housing units in the settlements. The prime minister’s aides briefed the White House on that decision in advance, and the subdued American reaction was coordinated.
But the approval this past Tuesday of 3,000 more housing units wasn’t coordinated – nor was Netanyahu’s announcement that for the first time in more than 20 years a new settlement would be built deep in the West Bank.
This was something the White House couldn’t digest, so it has made clear that even if it can look the other way regarding limited construction, it can’t remain silent about the Israeli government running amok in the settlements.
The meeting between Netanyahu and Trump on February 15 will be crucial for what happens next. The U.S. president is aiming for progress in the peace process and will wait to hear how Netanyahu proposes doing this.
The White House statement was a warning that he should show up with the goods. Netanyahu and his cabinet have seen how Trump behaves with leaders he believes are standing between him and his goals. The last thing Israel needs is for Trump to hang up the phone on Netanyahu, declare that talking to him is a waste of time or tweet about how he’s expecting payback for the funding Israel receives from Washington.