The White House cautioned Israel Thursday night that the country’s accelerated settlement activity in the occupied West Bank could jeopardize Middle East peace efforts, a surprise response from an administration widely expected to offer stauncher support of the Israeli policy.
Emboldened by Donald Trump’s pro-Israel statements on the campaign trail, Israel’s right-wing government had announced a flood of settlement-building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in the first weeks of the Trump administration. More than 600,000 Israelis live in such settlements, which take up land that could form the basis of a potential Palestinian state and are considered illegal under international law.
But after Israel revealed Wednesday that it planned to build its first new settlement in the West Bank in nearly 20 years, on top of earlier announcements of plans for thousands of new homes in existing settlements, the White House warned that such moves “may not be helpful,” signaling that the Jewish state does not have unqualified American support to press ahead with a ramped-up settlement program.
“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,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in a statement.
The statement added that the Trump administration had not yet taken an official position on the settlements issue, and would discuss the matter further with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting later this month.
Israel’s government has not yet officially responded to the White House comments. But Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely focused on Spicer’s remark that the administration did not see the settlements as “an impediment to peace” – an apparent departure from the position of the Obama administration, which had repeatedly criticized the settlement program.
“The White House itself holds that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and they never have been,” Hotovely said in a statement. “It must be concluded, therefore, that expansion of construction is not the problem.”
A prominent Israeli settlers group took a similar line. Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlers council, said the group “thanks the White House for asserting that our communities were never an impediment to peace. Nothing is more natural and morally just than Jews building in Judea.”
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, told Israel Radio that it was “too early” to tell how the statement would affect future settlement building.
Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank, told VICE News that the statement would likely come as a surprise to some on Israel’s pro-settler right, who have been eagerly awaiting a Trump administration they believed would give them carte blanche on the settlement issue.
“The right thought they could do what they want,” he said.
He said the statement might be welcomed by Netanyahu, as it would help him resist increasingly strident calls from the right of his coalition. The recent announcement of plans for thousands of new settler homes was widely seen as an attempt to appease the pro-settler right, following the government’s controversial clearance of an illegal settler outpost at Amona, near Ramallah.
“Netanyahu would like to do it [settlement] in a more pragmatic way, without opposing the world all the time,” Mekelberg said. “For some on the right, they don’t care – this is the promised land, to hell with whatever anyone else in the world thinks.”
In December, Trump had slammed the outgoing Obama administration for allowing the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned Israel’s settlements as “a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution.”
The resolution – the first since 1979 to condemn Israel over the policy – was effectively able to pass due to the U.S.’s decision to abstain from the vote.