Israel plays down White House remarks on settlements, Palestinians express alarm
AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP/File)
A senior Israeli official played down Friday remarks from the White House that building new or expanding existing settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories "may not be helpful" in securing peace.
In an apparent break from President Donald Trump's previously full-throated support of outpost building, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that the new administration hadn't yet taken an official position on settlements.
Responding Friday, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon said Spicer's comments didn't amount to "a U-turn".
"The statement is very clear and essentially means: wait for the meeting with (Israeli) Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu, who is arriving in Washington in less than two weeks to meet President Trump, and then we'll determine our policy," Danon told Israeli public radio.
Danon stressed that no one can say that Israel wanted to hear statements like those made by the White House tonight, but Israel determines its own policies.
"That's how it was and that's how it will be. We are a sovereign country. We will not be in full agreement with the United States over the next four years on everything, but there is communication," said Danon.
The White House said building new Israeli settlements or expanding existing ones "may not be helpful" in securing Middle East peace.
"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," said spokesman Sean Spicer.
The statement followed a report by the Jerusalem Post, which quoted an unnamed American official who said that Trump has warned Israel to stop its unilateral announcements of new construction in the West Bank as they “undermine” his efforts to reach a peace agreement.
“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 official told the Post.
"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,” the official added. “The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward.”
The Palestinians, meanwhile, were concerned by the US statement, with senior official Hanan Ashrawi telling AFP that its "unacceptable and unclear" wording implied building inside settlements was permitted.
Another Palestinian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the statement was "worrying".
"Even though some may consider this is an improvement, in fact this goes against 50 years of clear US policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem," the official said.
Since Trump came to office Israel has approved a slew of new settlement constructions, the type of act that critics say risks making a two-state solution impossible.
Israel recently unveiled plans for 3,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, the fourth such announcement in the less than two weeks since Trump took office.
"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," Spicer said.
Trump is scheduled to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House on February 15.
Settlements in both the West Bank and east Jerusalem are viewed as illegal and major stumbling blocks to peace by the international community, as they are built on land the Palestinians want for their own state.
While former president Barack Obama grew frustrated with Israeli settlement building and declined to veto a December 23 UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements, Trump had called for the resolution to be vetoed.
The Republican president has moved quickly to befriend Israel's prime minister, and the pair spoke by telephone on Sunday.
Trump has previously stated that his son-in-law Jared Kushner would play a role in trying to negotiate peace.
The idea of an Israeli and a Palestinian state coexisting has underpinned peace efforts for decades.
The president has also said he plans to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem -- a measure that the Palestinians have fiercely condemned.
If the US embassy is moved to Jerusalem, it would break decades of US policy and be at odds with the overwhelming majority of other nations, which believe the status of Jerusalem must be resolved through negotiation.
Trump has also come under fire for failing to specifically mention in his Holocaust remembrance statement on Friday the six million Jews killed in the Nazi genocide.
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The White House needs to find the backbone it appeared to have had!
I really hope President Trump's administration has the backbone to match his earlier rhetoric.