U.S. President Donald Trump told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call two days after his inauguration that he is determined to pursue a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israeli premier told his security cabinet on Sunday.
- Explained: How big an obstacle are Israeli settlements to peace?
- From sleepovers to speaking fees: Netanyahu's close ties to the Kushners
- Words 'Palestinian state' mustn't be uttered in Trump-Netanyahu meet, Bennett warns
"We have to make every effort to avoid a confrontation with him," Netanyahu told his ministers, according to a senior official with knowledge of the meeting's proceedings.
The official, who wished to remain nameless due to the sensitivity of the matter, said that Netanyahu told the ministers that Trump asked him in their January 22 phone conversation if and how he intends to advance the peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said that he told Trump that he supports the two-state solution and a final status agreement, but stressed that he told the president that the Palestinians are unwilling and detailed the reasons why a peace deal cannot be reached at this time.
"They (the Palestinians) will want, they will make concessions," was Trump's response, Netanyahu told the ministers, the official said.
Netanyahu revealed the details of his phone call with Trump after Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked pressed him to urge the U.S. president to take the two-state solution off the table, while complimenting him on his diplomacy skills. "You have the ability, he appreciates you," the two told Netanyahu. "You can convince him to drop the issue of the two states."
The senior official said that Netanyahu replied that he doesn't believe that was possible, noting the American president's stances and temperament. "Trump believes in a deal and in running peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," Netanyahu stressed. "We should be careful and not do things that will cause everything to break down. We mustn't get into a confrontation with him."
Netanyahu said that in their meeting he intends to voice a commitment to a two-state solution, but to emphasize the Palestinians' unwillingness to pursue peace and his stance that the root of the conflict is not settlements or territory, but the Palestinians' refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
According to the senior official, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman came to Netanyahu's aid and told the ministers that a first meeting between leaders is mainly intended to create chemistry and trust, and policy matters could be discussed in following meetings. Lieberman said that he too will fly to Washington this week to meet his American counterpart James Mattis on Friday.
A significant part of the meeting, according to the senior official, was dedicated to the policy Netanyahu will present to Trump regarding settlement construction. Minister Israel Katz, who holds the transportation and intelligence portfolios, told Netanyahu that Israel should try and reach an understanding with Trump on unhindered construction in East Jerusalem and within the West Bank settlements. "That's just 8-10 percent of the territory and won't contradict any future negotiations," he said.
Bennett and Shaked agreed, as did Ministers Ze'ev Elkin and Yariv Levin. Bennett also pulled out a document to that effect prepared by the settler leadership. "We trust you," Bennett told Netanyahu. "I believe in you, prime minister."
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that Netanyahu must raise the possibility to Trump of annexing Gush Etzion and Ma'aleh Adumim, which are considered part of the settlement blocs that will remain in Israeli hands under any agreement.
Erdan said that Israel must discuss an "economic peace" with Trump and propose projects the U.S. could lead in the West Bank. "Trump is a businessman," Erdan said. "Economic entrepreneurship could interest him." Erdan also said that in light of the UN Security Council against the settlements during Barack Obama's last days in office, Netanyahu must ask Trump to advance federal legislation that will prohibit boycotts not only of Israel, but of territories under its control. "That's the answer to the Security Council resolution that tries to differentiates between Israel and Judea and Samaria," Erdan said, using a biblical term for the West Bank.
Netanyahu's diplomacy adviser, Jonathan Schachter, erroneously claimed during the meeting that it was Trump's advisers, and not the president himself, who voiced support for settlement construction during the election campaign. In fact, Trump told the British Daily Mail in May 2016 that Israel should continue building in the settlements.
Netanyahu responded to his ministers' remarks with reserve, saying that settlement construction is a complex matter and that he will discuss it with the U.S. president. The senior official said that Netanyahu didn't commit that the aforementioned understanding could be reached with Trump, but promised to make an effort.
The cabinet discussion lasted for four hours, and was "long, deep and thorough," the Prime Minister's Bureau said. Among the issues discussed were Iran, Syria, the Palestinians and the relationship between Israel and the United States.
"All ministers agreed that there is great significance to strengthening ties with the U.S. both on the governmental level and the interpersonal level," the bureau said, adding: "The atmosphere was relaxed and matter-of-fact. When the discussion was over, the ministers congratulated the prime minister and wished him good luck."