This Is What Trump and Netanyahu Will Discuss at Their Meeting (If You Believe Spicer)

While the White House has repeatedly ducked questions about everything from Jerusalem to settlements, Netanyahu promised 'clear' answers from his meeting with Trump. What to expect?

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White House spokesman Sean Spicer at the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 9, 2017.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer at the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 9, 2017.Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

A White House that has been outspoken on almost every issue for the past three weeks has shown a tendency to speak in a calculated and careful tone when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to effectively "duck" any direct questions about this Middle-Eastern hotspot.

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The first instance of this approach was apparent when Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave a briefing a day before Trump's inauguration. He was asked about the new president's campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

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After more than two months of a presidential transition period, during which people close to Trump emphasized again and again that he was planning to follow through quickly on the embassy move, all Spicer had to say was that an announcement would be made, and that journalists should "stay tuned." He didn't provide any details.

A few days later, on Spicer's first daily White House briefing, the embassy came up once again – and Spicer once again stayed vague in his reply.

"We're at the very beginning of the decision making process," Spicer said. When another journalist pressed him for a more clear response, Spicer repeated this formula. When a third reporter tried to outsmart him by asking – "at the end of Trump's four years in the White House, will there be an embassy in Jerusalem?," Spicer smiled and once again said that the "decision making process" was only beginning, adding that "there's a reason why we go through a process."

The next day, Spicer was once again asked about the embassy issue at the daily press briefing. This time he walked back the embassy move a bit, stating that "no decision has been made." When will there be a decision? Where was the process standing? Spicer didn't clarify.

Trump arrives in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. Will host Netanyahu on Wednesday.Credit: Evan Vucci, AP

At that same briefing, Spicer was also asked – twice – about reports that the Trump administration tried to stop the transfer of $220 million to the Palestinian Authority, a transfer ordered by the Obama White House in its' very last hours in power. Spicer evaded the question by stating only that Trump will make sure American tax-payer money is being spent wisely abroad. He didn't mention the Palestinian Authority in his reply.

Spicer had to address the Israel issue once again a week later, following an Israeli announcement about building thousands of new settlement homes in the West Bank. During the election campaign, Trump said he had no problem with Israel building in settlements, but at other times said he wanted to be a "neutral broker" between Israel and the Palestinians.

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When his press secretary was asked how the new administration viewed this building announcement – did it support it, opposite it, feel indifferent - his reply was only that Trump would soon meet Netanyahu in the White House, and both of them would discuss the issue at their meeting.

Last week, Spicer was asked what the administration's position was on Israel's controversial outpost legalization bill. He replied: "I think that will obviously be a topic of discussion" when Netanyahu comes to the White House. "Right now, I don't want to get ahead of that."  

In another instance, when asked if Trump supported the two-state solution, Spicer replied – "he supports peace, that's his goal."

The only piece of clarity provided so far by the White House was in the form of a written statement attributed to Spicer, that came out in early February and stated that while the administration didn't view existing settlements as an impediment to peace, it didn't think expanding them or building new ones would be helpful.

Even that statement, however, left many open questions – did it mean the White House would give Israel a free hand to build inside existing settlements? Would there be a geographical agreement with Israel separating certain "settlement blocs" from isolated settlements? When Spicer was asked about the written statement a day after its publication, he said the text was clear enough, and chose not to add anything to it.

Trump himself, when asked about Israel-related issues in his public interviews since taking office, hasn't been much more detailed in his replies than his press secretary. On the Jerusalem embassy move, he said that it was "too early" or that he "didn't want to talk about it."

The one clear answer Trump provided was in an interview last week with Israel Hayom, a right-wing Israeli newspaper owned by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, in which he explained why he thought settlement construction wouldn't be helpful to peace:

"There is limited remaining territory. Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains. I'm not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace."

Even then, however, Trump immediately added – "but we are examining a number of options," once again creating more confusion.  

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu boarding a plane to Washington D.C. ahead of the prime minister's meeting with Trump, February 13, 2017.Credit: Avi Ohayon, GPO

Netanyahu promised some clear answers on Monday, while on the plane headed to Washington for his first meeting with Trump.

Netanyahu was asked by a reporter if he would say publicly that he is still committed to his Bar Ilan speech from 2009, in which he first accepted the two-state solution.

Netanyahu didn't provide a clear answer to the question, but said – "you'll hear very clear answers" at the meeting with Trump.

His refusal to give a yes-or-no answer to this policy question is in line with how the Trump administration has handled these delicate questions so far.

For many in Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinian territories, Wednesday morning – when the meeting will take place – cannot come fast enough. 

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