The White House has said that Israel’s settlement building programme “may not be helpful”, marking the Trump administration’s first public response to a construction spree on Palestinian lands announced by the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days.
The statement, issued two weeks before Mr Netanyahu is due to visit President Donald Trump in Washington, is a rap on the knuckles for the Israeli prime minister, who had hoped the US would lift tacit constraints on settlement expansion put in place under Barack Obama.
The White House remarks came after a week in which the Netanyahu government green-lit the building of thousands of new homes in the occupied Palestinian territories and began planning its first new West Bank settlement in more than two decades.
“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,” Sean Spicer, White House spokesman, said in a briefing in Washington on Thursday.
Mr Spicer said Mr Trump “has not taken an official position on settlement activity” and looked forward to “continuing discussions” with Mr Netanyahu when the two men meet in Washington on February 15.
His remarks drew widespread notice in Israel and the occupied territories. Palestinians and pro-peace Israelis fear the Trump administration is abandoning the two-state solution while pro-settler members of the hard-right Netanyahu government see the change of administration as carte blanche to build in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem without fear of reprimand.
Danny Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador, on Friday sought to play down Mr Spicer’s remarks, saying they did not mark a shift in White House policy. “I wouldn’t call it a U-turn, the message is very clear,” Mr Danon told Israel Radio. “The meaning is: wait until the meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who arrives in Washington in less than two weeks for a meeting with President Trump, and then set policy.”
Husam Zomlot, a senior Palestinian official, described Mr Spicer’s remarks as “a small step in the right direction”.
“The last week has been horrible for the two-state solution,” Mr Zomlot told the Financial Times. “I believe Netanyahu was sizing up Trump.”
However, he added: “This is not yet at the level of long-held US policy that settlements are illegal and a major obstacle to the two-state solution.”
Mr Trump has promised to be the “most pro-Israel president ever” and the Republican party’s platform on Israel, adopted last year, made no reference to the two-state solution under which a Palestinian state would be created.
David Friedman, his nominee for US ambassador to Israel, has voiced scepticism about the two-state solution and is a supporter of the settlements, raising hopes in Israel that Washington will turn a blind eye to building in settlements or even annexation of parts of the West Bank.
On Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu announced plans to build Israel’s first new settlement in the West Bank in about 25 years to house settlers evicted from the illegal outpost of Amona, which police began evacuating in response to an Israeli court order.
Hours Israel’s defence ministry announced plans to build 3,000 new settlement homes, in an apparent move to appease settler interests. This followed the Israeli government’s announcement last week that it was building more than 3,000 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli-occupied lands where the Palestinians want to build their state.
Mr Netanyahu’s government, which includes many politicians who live in settlements or favour building in settlements, is advancing a bill in the Knesset that would retroactively legalise unauthorised settler outposts in the West Bank. This has been criticised by Palestinians as a potential further blow to the two-state solution.
The Palestinians and the international community describe Israel’s building in settlements as a primary obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state, but Israel blames Palestinian obstructionism and incitement to violence for the standstill in the two-decades-old US-brokered peace process.
The UN in December passed a Security Council resolution calling on Israel to halt all settlement activity, with 14 world powers voting in favour and the US abstaining.
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