U.S. 'Working Closely' With Israel on How to Curb Settlements

State Department spokesman says he was not aware of any contacts between Tillerson and senior Palestinian officials; calls reports of U.S. withdrawing from UN Human Rights Council 'rumors.'

Acting State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner speaks during a news briefing at the State Department in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2017.
JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The State Department's acting spokesperson Mark Toner said on Tuesday, during his first press briefing under the Trump administration, that the department was "working closely" with the White House to devise a new Middle East policy. He added that the administration was discussing with Israel "what exactly it would look like" for it to hold back on its settlement activity.

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The first question directed to Toner was about reports published in January that claimed the Trump White House asked the State Department to review, and possibly stop, a last-minute decision by the Obama administration to send $220 million to the Palestinian Authority. Toner said he was not aware of any steps that were taken with regards to that money transfer.

In reply to a question about U.S. policy regarding Israeli settlements in the West Bank under President Donald Trump, Toner said that Trump "spoke about this a couple of weeks ago" when he told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he would like to see Israel "hold back on settlements for a while." Toner said the two sides were now discussing "what exactly that would look like."

Toner added that he was not aware of any contacts between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and senior Palestinian officials, but that Michael Ratney, a senior State Department official who was the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem from 2012 to 2015, was in touch with Palestinian officials. Ratney has been the State Department's special envoy to the Syria conflict since 2015, and Toner said for the time being, he would also be responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian file.

Asked about recent reports that the U.S. was about to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, Toner said these reports were "rumors" and that the U.S. was "there and part of the process."

Toner also discussed the Trump White House's revised "travel ban" executive order, signed on Monday by the president, and said that Iraq's removal from the list for countries mentioned in the order was a testament to the strong cooperation between the U.S. and the Iraqi government in the fight against ISIS.

Toner started the briefing by providing details on Tillerson's upcoming travel plans to East Asia, in light of North Korea's latest missile tests, which he described as "provocative behavior." He also expressed U.S. support for the effort to end the conflict in Cyprus and unify the Mediterranean island.