WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's White House said late Thursday that Israel's settlement construction may not be helpful to reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.
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“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal," the White House said in a statement.
"As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
The Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, was the first Israeli official to respond to the White House's statement. Speaking to Israel Radio on Friday morning, Danon said it was still too early to tell how the latest remarks would affect settlement construction.
"I would not categorize this as a U-turn by the U.S. administration but the issue is clearly on their agenda .... The issue will be discussed when the prime minister meets the president in Washington," Danon said.
"We will not always agree on everything," he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone with Netanyahu on Thursday, the State Department said, but it was unclear when the call took place and whether the two discussed the statement. Netanyahu and Trump are set to meet in the United States on February 15.
The statement could signal a major disappointment for many on the Israeli right, including senior members of Netanyahu's government, who hoped that Trump would abandon the two-state solution and believed that his approach to settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would be far more supportive than that of Barack Obama.
The White House said the Trump administration had not yet taken an official position on the settlements, but according to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, it also warned Israel against "unilateral" announcements of new settlements, saying they "undermine" the new administration's desire to reach a peace deal along the lines of a two-state solution. The Post cited an unnamed senior official.
“As President Trump has made clear, he is very interested in reaching a deal that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is currently exploring the best means of making progress toward that goal,” The Post quoted the official as saying.
"With that in mind, we urge all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.”
Haaretz has reported that since Trump's election victory, Education Minister Naftali Bennett has pressured Netanyahu, both publicly and privately, to repudiate his consent to “a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside Israel,” as he put it in his June 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University.
Haaretz has learned that in a closed meeting with party members, Netanyahu said now is not the time to "shoot from the hip" when it comes to the new U.S. administration.
Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party pushed for a vote on legislation that would effectively annex to Israel the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, just east of Jerusalem. "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.
Reuters contributed to this report.