WASHINGTON — President Trump, who has made support for Israel a cornerstone of his foreign policy, shifted gears on Thursday and for the first time warned the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold off new settlement construction.
“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.
The White House noted that the president “has not taken an official position on settlement activity,” but said Mr. Trump would discuss the issue with Mr. Netanyahu when they meet Feb. 15, in effect telling him to wait until then. Emboldened by Mr. Trump’s support, Israel had announced more than 5,000 new homes in the West Bank since his Jan. 20 inauguration.
The statement resembled those issued routinely by previous administrations of both parties for decades, but Mr. Trump has positioned himself as an unabashed ally of Israel and until now had never questioned Mr. Netanyahu’s approach. Mr. Trump picked as his ambassador to Israel a financial supporter of West Bank settlement, and he harshly criticized former President Barack Obama in December for not blocking a United Nations resolution condemning settlements.
But Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government seemed to take Mr. Trump’s inauguration as a starting gun in a race to ramp up its construction in the occupied territory. Since the president was sworn in, the government announced that it would authorize another 2,500 homes in areas already settled in the West Bank, and then followed that this week with an announcement of 3,000 more. On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu took it a step further, vowing to build the first new settlement in the West Bank in many years.
For Mr. Netanyahu, the settlement spree reflects a sense of liberation after years of constraints from Washington, especially under Mr. Obama, who like other presidents viewed settlement construction as harmful to the chances of negotiating a final peace settlement. It also represents an effort to deflect criticism from Israel’s political right for complying with a court order to force out several dozen families in the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona.
The Israeli housing ministry on Thursday announced tenders for 2,000 homes, which appeared to advance some of those announced earlier this week.
Peace Now, an advocacy group that opposes settlement construction, accused Mr. Netanyahu of trying to shore up his political position at a time when he is under fire for the Amona evacuation and under investigation on corruption allegations.
“Netanyahu must not let the two-state solution be the casualty of his fight for political survival,” the group said in a statement. “Yesterday’s announcement include the promotion of housing units deep in the West Bank and in highly problematic areas for a future agreement.”
Mr. Netanyahu vowed earlier on Thursday to continue settlement construction in the West Bank. He made the comments while attending a memorial service marking fourth anniversary of the death of Ron Nachman, a founder and longtime mayor of the settlement of Ariel.
“There are perhaps 20,000 residents here today, and I promise you: There will be many more,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Just recently the government I head approved another 1,000 units, which means 5,000 people, and means significant growth. There is no way that Ariel will not be part of the State of Israel — it will always be part of the State of Israel.”
The Ariel settlement bloc is considered one of those that Israel intends to keep in any eventual final settlement with the Palestinians, possibly in exchange for land elsewhere. But for the Palestinians, it is particularly problematic because its location in the heart of the West Bank would threaten the continuity of a future state.
The White House statement on Thursday was gentler in tone than those in past administrations, while sending a similar message. The The White House went further in a statement given to The Jerusalem Post. Noting that Mr. Trump wants to reach a deal, an unnamed official told The Post that “we urge all parties from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements.”
The shift in position came hours after Mr. Trump met briefly with King Abdullah II of Jordan, who raced to Washington to appeal to the new president not to forgo Arab concerns over Israeli policy. In particular, Jordan has been concerned about Mr. Trump’s promise to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the city Israelis and Palestinians would divide and each make their capital in most versions of a peace deal.
The king came to Washington with no meeting with Mr. Trump on the schedule, and some administration officials were leery of setting up such a meeting before Mr. Netanyahu’s visit. Instead, the king was hosted for breakfast on Monday by Vice President Mike Pence at his official residence. But in the end, the king was able to talk with Mr. Trump on the sidelines of the national prayer breakfast on Thursday morning.
The White House had already slowed down the embassy move, saying that it was only beginning to consider it. Mr. Obama and other presidents declined to make such a move in part out of concern that it would set off a violent response and influence the terms of a final peace settlement.
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