The Trump administration is shaping its policy toward Israel and a potential peace settlement with the Palestinians in ways that may seem surprising for a president who had appeared to offer the government in Jerusalem a blank check on the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and other issues.
The outlines of the policy emerged Friday after a conflicting series of statements attributed to the administration.
On Thursday evening, the White House issued an unusual statement discouraging new Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That was prompted by a Jerusalem Post story that appeared to be based on the leak of parts of a harsher, draft statement criticizing settlements as an obstacle to peace. The subsequent official statement was an attempt to soften any blanket condemnation of settlements and any perceived criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, people familiar with the episode said Friday.
The official statement, rushed as it was, is nonetheless expected to be the foundation for Trump administration policy on Israeli homebuilding on land that Palestinians claim for a future state. It puts the United States on record agreeing with Israeli leaders that current settlements are not necessarily an obstacle to peace, but it also says that new construction “may not be helpful.”
There was no mention of the long-stated U.S. goal of a separate Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The settlement policy — more lenient toward Israel than the Obama administration’s, but not as lenient as sought by many of Israel’s strongest backers — is expected to be formalized when Netanyahu visits President Trump at the White House on Feb. 15.
“The president’s committed to peace. That’s his goal,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Friday, adding that settlements would “obviously be a topic” for the two leaders. “We don’t believe that the existence of current settlements is an impediment to peace, but I think the construction or expansion of existing settlements beyond the current borders is not going to be helpful moving forward.”
That’s not what the original, leaked version of a U.S. statement about settlement expansion had said. Drafted in response to Israel’s surprise announcement of 5,500 new homes for Jews in the West Bank over the last week, the remarks originally charged that settlements could hamper peace efforts, according to people who saw its contents or were briefed on them.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how the statement was drafted.
The Jerusalem Post quoted an unidentified administration official Thursday as saying settlements could “undermine” U.S. chances to foster peace. The official was also quoted as saying that Trump is committed to two states.
The article set off a scramble to issue revised language that softened the rebuke and removed the reference to two states, while making clear that the United States will not countenance everything Israel does.
The result may be helpful to Netanyahu in two ways, U.S. and Israeli officials and analysts said. It lifts U.S. pressure against current settlements, which previous administrations have called illegitimate and a hindrance to peace, while giving him political cover against critics on his right who want to greatly expand building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It also suggests more continuity with past policy than many foreign policy analysts had expected, given Trump’s fierce condemnation of the Obama administration for being “unfair” to Israel, and the strong views of close advisers shaping his Israel policy.
“This statement is important in that it seeks to eliminate tension created by the last administration over growth within existing Israeli communities in the West Bank, and it signals a return to the status quo ante” of U.S. opposition to settlement expansion, said Joshua Block, president of the Israel Project in Washington.
Block likened the statement to the much more detailed written understandings between former president George W. Bush and former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in which the United States gave quiet assurance that it would recognize existing settlement blocks as part of Israel in a future peace accord. The Bush policy allowed for growth within settlements but not for expanding their perimeters or the building of new communities.
Settlements are usually considered one of the primary obstacles to a peace settlement, because Palestinians consider them an illegal expropriation and their existence complicates the drawing of viable borders for a Palestinian state.
As a candidate, Trump said Israel should “go ahead” with settlements, and as president-elect, he railed against the Obama administration for allowing a U.N. condemnation of Israel over settlements.
As president, Trump has mentioned the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. 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.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu looks forward to his meeting with President Trump on February 15 in which they will speak about a wide range of issues, including this one,” Netanyahu’s office said of the White House statement.
“If you dissect the wording it seems a slight departure,” said Alon Pinkas, a former senior Israeli diplomat and top government aide. “At the same time, the right wing in Israel didn’t expect this and was blindsided.”
The administration statement followed extensive conversations here this week between visiting King Abdullah II of Jordan and the White House. Abdullah, who spoke briefly to Trump at Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, met with Vice President Pence, national security adviser Michael Flynn and other White House officials, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and senior lawmakers with whom he maintains a close relationship.
Jordan is among the few Arab countries considered stable and trustworthy by the administration. Its geography, bordering Israel, the West Bank, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, also makes it a key player on a range of issues, from the anti-Islamic State campaign to the migrant crisis that has brought more than 650,000 Syrian refugees to Jordan and an additional 85,000 on the Syrian side of the border waiting to get in.
A White House statement on the meeting with Trump said that the president “underscored that the United States is committed to strengthening the security and economic partnership with Jordan” and that they discussed an official visit in the “near future.”
Anxious to get a reading on where the new administration stood on a number of issues, Abdullah cautioned in particular that the promised movement of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would have cascading, negative consequences. More than 2 million Palestinians live in Jordan, about one-third of the population. Any upheaval in the West Bank would have immediate spillover effects.
Despite his campaign statements that it would take place immediately after his inauguration, Trump appears to have dialed back his commitment to moving the embassy. While the Jerusalem Embassy Act passed in 1995 calls for relocating the mission to Jerusalem, the law included a national security waiver that every administration since has exercised. The current waiver, signed by President Obama in December, expires in June. Regional partners who have spoken to Trump administration officials about it believe the White House intends to delay a final decision until forced to do so when Trump would need to sign another waiver or take steps to implement the law.
In Israel, there was head-scratching and instant punditry about what exactly the Trump administration may be saying with its statement.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, 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 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 the Israeli Supreme Court branded as “illegal.”
The eviction of the 600 settlers and 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, had announced the plans to build the 5,500 houses for Jews in the West Bank.
A week ago, Netanyahu 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.”
William Booth in Jerusalem and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.