White House: Trump Will Discuss Settlement Construction in Meeting With Netanyahu

At press briefing, Press Secretary Spicer neither condemned nor supported an Israeli decision on 2,500 new settlement homes in West Bank.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Jan. 24, 2017.
Susan Walsh/AP

WASHINGTON D.C. - U.S. President Donald Trump will discuss the issue of settlement building with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at their meeting in Washington next month, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing to the press on Tuesday. 

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Spicer was asked about the Israeli government's decision to build and plan 2,500 new housing units in settlements in the West Bank, and effectively ducked the question, refraining from offering either support or condemnation to the Israeli announcement. He said only that Israel is a close ally of the U.S. and that this issue will be discussed at the upcoming meeting between the two countries' leaders. 

Spicer was also asked during the briefing about the Obama administration's decision, taken in the former president's very last hours in power, to transfer approximately $220 million to the Palestinian Authority, despite earlier objections by Congress. Spicer didn't answer the question, and instead only said that Trump "is very concerned on how American taxpayer money is being spent" and will be "examining all aspects of that," to make sure that money being spent by the U.S. government abroad serves American interests.

Spicer's replies to these two questions followed the same pattern of his replies on Monday to questions from the media regarding the possible move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. On this issue as well, Spicer refrained from giving a clear answer or providing any details, and stated only that "there's no decision and we are at the very beginning of the decision making process." 

Number of planned housing units

While Trump has not commented on settlement construction plans announced by Israel since he took office, in the past he has vowed to “fix” his predecessor’s ties with Israel and pledged to move Washington's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Some of his advisers have expressed support for West Bank settlements. David Friedman, the designated ambassador to Israel, is an outspoken proponent of the settlements and heads an organization that has donated to Beit El. The parents of Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner have donated to the settlement as well.

But others in his cabinet have been critical of the settlements. Trump's pick for UN envoy Nikki Haley has remarked at a confirmation hearing that settlements "can hinder peace," and Pentagon pick James Mattis has warned in the past that the settlements are turning Israel into an apartheid state.

'Don't be a freier'

Two left-wing Jewish organizations in the U.S., Americans for Peace Now and J Street, strongly condemned the settlement announcement on Tuesday, with the former stating that "the actions of this Israeli government are exploitative in the extreme" and urging President Trump to "not let the Israeli right-wing make a "freier" (Hebrew for "sucker") out of him."

J Street stated that "this announcement should put to rest any illusion that this Israeli government seeks a two-state solution with the Palestinians. It will deepen Israel’s diplomatic isolation, boost international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts and deepen the despair among Palestinians that sadly fuels ongoing violence."

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman approved the construction and planning of some 2,500 new housing units in the West Bank. Overall, the marketing of lands for the immediate construction of 909 new homes have been approved, as well as the expediting of planning at the relevant committees for an additional 1,642 homes.

Netanyahu said that "we are building - and will continue to build." Lieberman said that, "We are returning to life as normal in Judea and Samaria."

The announcement came two days after the Jerusalem city hall pushed forward plans for the construction of hundreds of new housing units beyond the Green Line, the pre-1967 border. On the same day, Netanyahu told his inner cabinet that he intends to lift all restrictions on construction in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs stemming from international pressure. 

Palestinians, Jordan and the European Union condemned the plan as a new obstacle to diplomacy and a violation of Palestinian rights.

In a statement, the Palestinian Authority rejected plan as a "deliberate provocation by Israel."

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the decision "damages attempts to restore security and stability to the region and will encourage radicalization and terrorism, and place obstacles before any attempt to create a diplomatic process that would lead to peace and security."

A statement by the Jordanian government spokesman, Mohammed al-Momani called the plans a violation of international law that seeks to undermine peace efforts and hurt Palestinian rights.

"It deals a tough blow to efforts to revive the peace process," Momani said. He urged the international community to put pressure on Israel to stop the construction.

The EU said the plans for new housing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was "seriously undermine the prospects for a viable two-state solution."

"It is regrettable that Israel is proceeding with this policy, despite the continuous serious international concern and objections, which have been constantly raised at all levels," an EU statement said.

Barak Ravid and Jack Khoury contributed to this report