JERUSALEM — After the White House cautioned Israel on Thursday night that new settlement construction in the West Bank “may not be helpful” in achieving a Middle East peace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his pro-settlement government appeared to be taken aback.
Was this a flashing yellow caution light?
Or was it a green light? A sign that after eight years of Obama’s condemnations against settlements as “illegitimate” and “obstacles to peace,” the Trump White House would offer only mild resistance to the housing boom that Jewish settlers crave and that Netanyahu this week promised.
Israeli officialdom spent the day mulling whether the Trump phrase “not helpful” was better for the settlers and their supporters than being called “an obstacle” by Obama and his secretary of state.
Netanyahu’s spokesman said only that the prime minister looked forward to discussing the matter later this month, when the Israeli leader is scheduled to met Trump in the White House on Feb. 15.
The prime minister’s top lieutenants were also surprisingly zipped-lip. There were none of the usual tweetstorms, no rants or praise.
Rather, there was head-scratching and instant punditry about what exactly Trump may be saying.
Thursday night’s statement from White House spokesman Sean Spicer came out after 1 a.m. Friday in Jerusalem on the morning of the coming sabbath.
Spicer said that although the administration does not believe settlements are “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.”
Spicer continued: “The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” a reference to President Trump’s insistence that a return to the Middle East negotiating table is a goal he hopes to achieve.
Asked at the White House briefing on Friday afternoon, Spicer said that settlements would “obviously be a topic” when President Trump meets with Netanyahu later this month. His statement, Spicer repeated, said that while new construction was “not helpful,” existing settlements were “not an impediment” to peace.
Spicer did not respond to a question about whether Trump was aiming at a “two-state” solution. “The president is committed to peace. That’s his goal,” he said. “That’s as far as I want to go on that.”
Trump has said that he plans to deploy his son-in-law, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, to the role of Middle East peacemaker.
Israel’s semiofficial response came from its ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, who told Israel Radio, “It’s still too early to tell. I would not categorize this as a U-turn by the U.S. administration, but the issue is clearly on their agenda.”
Danon added, “We don’t always agree on everything. The subject needs to be explored when Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with President Trump in Washington.” That meeting is scheduled for Feb. 15.
Thursday night’s White House statement came just a few hours after Israeli police forcibly evicted 40 families from the Jewish settlement of Amona, a messianic community of battered mobile homes on a windy hilltop built on land privately owned by Palestinians that even the Israeli supreme court branded as “illegal.”
The eviction of the 600 settlers and their hundreds of supporters on Wednesday and Thursday required more than 3,000 police officers. The most committed youth hurled excrement, bleach and rocks at the police. Dozens were injured. The young activists, goaded by zealous rabbis from West Bank religious schools, chained themselves together in Amona’s synagogue for a final standoff, which ended only a few hours before the White House statement.
As the Amona evictions began, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who resides in a settlement, announced plans to build 5,500 more houses for Jews in the West Bank. Many Israelis consider the land promised to them by God; the Palestinians want the land for a future state.
A week ago, Netanyahu has assured his Likud party and his security cabinet that when he travels to Washington he will not yield to pressure to give the Palestinians a full state, but something he called a “state-minus.”
Still, the meaning of the White House statement on settlements left plenty of room for debate.
A former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, told The Washington Post that the White House statement suggested that Trump was still committed to seeking a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians and that it viewed settlement building “as a negative.”
“It looks like the Trump administration is still saying that the basic U.S. policy toward Middle East peace hasn’t changed,” Shapiro said.
“Everyone in the region who suspects that the U.S. doesn’t care about this is not correct,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said, “The White House itself holds that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace and they never have been. It must be concluded therefore that expansion of construction is not the problem.”
Hotovely blamed the Palestinians for the stalled peace.
She also warned her silent coalition members, “the current Israeli government was elected to act on the Jewish People’s right to build in all parts of our land and we must respect the will of the people who elected us for this purpose.”
In the Israeli left-wing newspaper Haaretz, the columnist Chemi Shalev wrote, “The White House statement was a shot across the bow to Netanyahu that there’s a limit to everything.”
Gershom Gorenberg, columnist at the American Prospect, tweeted, “Trump has not returned to historic U.S. policy on settlements. He has significantly softened it.”
Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor who writes in support of the settlements, asserted the White House went far beyond mere softening. “It’s a total reversal,” he tweeted.
The former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, said the Trump White House statement did not appear to be a green light for more construction in the West Bank.
In a tweet, Indyk characterized the phrase “may not be helpful” as “pure Bill Clinton language.”
Karen DeYoung in Washington and Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.