Netanyahu Warns Lawmakers: 'Surprises' for Trump Could Harm Israel

Netanyahu touts personal relationship with U.S. president in closed meeting. Hinting at bill to annex settlement, prime minister warns against 'shooting from the hip' when U.S. administration is involved.

In this Sunday, March 20, 2016 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his Jerusalem office.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

At a closed meeting with members of his Likud party Knesset faction, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that mistakes in handling relations in the near future with the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump are liable to inflict diplomatic damage on Israel.

"The diplomatic issue is a very important subject, presenting opportunities that could easily be squandered by thoughtless actions," the prime minister said. "In this reality, it is easily possible to lose the moment and to turn the relationship in a direction that would not serve Israel's aims."

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Netanyahu added that he has a personal relationship of trust with Trump. "That's an important asset," the prime minister said. "It's important that I be given the chance to steer this. I have been steering it for eight years now, and I don't think anyone else would have done it better under very difficult circumstances."

Construction underway in the Jerusalem-area settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, December 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

In a dig at Education Minister Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party, Netanyahu said now is not the time to "shoot from the hip" when it comes to the new U.S. administration. Habayit Hayehudi had been pushing for a vote on legislation that would effectively annex the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, to Israel. "For the good of the country, and for the good of [the settlement enterprise], I suggest that everyone set aside any other consideration and allow me to lead the process," Netanyahu said.

On Sunday, the inner security cabinet decided unanimously to defer a vote on the proposed legislation until after Netanyahu meets with Trump in Washington next month. The prime minister told the security cabinet meeting he supports the proposition that Ma'aleh Adumim would be subject to Israeli sovereignty, and that is was clear to everyone that such a provision would be part of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians, but it was also important not to surprise the Trump administration when it has just taken office.

Haaretz reported that Netanyahu spoke by phone Bennett over the weekend and asked him to postpone consideration of the Ma'aleh Adumim bill in light of messages conveyed by advisers of President Trump. Netanyahu told Bennett that Trump’s advisers said no unilateral steps should be taken by Israel before the Netanyahu-Trump meeting, “I’m getting messages from Trump not to jump in head first,” Netanyahu told Bennett.

Netanyahu characterized his telephone conversation with newly inaugurated President Donald Trump as "very warm, reflecting the depth of relations between us and the personal ties between us." The prime minister recounted that Trump spoke about what Netanyahu characterized as the president's "unprecedented commitment to the State of Israel and the war against extremist Islamic terrorism."

The prime minister added that Trump spoke at length about the threat posed by Iran and expressed his dissatisfaction with the nuclear agreement that the world powers signed with Iran in 2015. "He thinks it's a bad agreement," Netanyahu said.

In their first phone call since Trump took office, the president told Netanyahu on Sunday that peace between Israel and the Palestinians could only be reached through direct negotiations. "[P]eace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties," the president said, adding that "the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress towards that goal."

Netanyahu "expressed his desire to work closely with President Trump to forge a common vision to advance peace and security in the region, with no daylight between the United States and Israel," said a statement from Netanyahu's bureau.

The subject of moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was not mentioned in the statement released by the Prime Minister's Office or in the one published by the White House, and it is unclear whether the issue was discussed during the conversation.

At the inner security cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu said he had decided to remove all Israeli government restraints on planning committee approval imposed due to international diplomatic pressure of Israeli construction in areas of Jerusalem beyond the pre-1967 border. The prime minister said he also intends to advance construction plans in Jewish settlement blocs on the West Bank. Netanyahu's expressed stance was one of the reasons that Habayit Hayehudi cabinet ministers agreed to defer a vote on the bill to annex Ma'aleh Adumim.