JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent mixed signals about his government’s new policy on Jewish settlements built in the occupied West Bank even as he and President Trump attempt to reach an understanding on the issue.
In a statement released Thursday evening, Netanyahu said his government unanimously approved the construction of a new settlement, the first in two decades, to be built deep inside the West Bank. A few hours later, his ministers anonymously shared information with the Israeli media on his intention to slow settlement activity to appease Trump.
The new settlement, meant to serve as compensation for the community of Amona, which was demolished in February after a Supreme Court ruling that it was built on private Palestinian land, will be located among a cluster of hardcore ideological communities. They call the West Bank by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria, and believe it is land promised to them by God.
Palestinians, left-wing human rights activists and several Western countries condemned the decision to build a new settlement in the area, saying it will consolidate an arc of illegal Israeli towns that will block the possible creation of any future contiguous Palestinian state.
According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Netanyahu told the White House that he had no choice but to approve the new settlement, as well as build thousands more homes inside already existing settlements, because of the commitments he made before Trump took office.
“We note that the Israeli Prime Minister made a commitment to the Amona settlers prior to President Trump laying out his expectations,” the State Department said in a statement in response to Israel’s announcement. It said, however, that Israel had made clear its intention to “take Trump’s concerns into consideration” moving forward.
When the two leaders met in February, Trump urged Netanyahu to “hold back” from more settlement construction. Since then, representatives of the two leaders have been meeting to reach an understanding, but no progress has been made.
In recent weeks, Trump has expressed interest in restarting the stalled peace process. Early in March, he sent Jason Greenblatt, his special representative for international negotiations, to the region, and he has hinted that the two-state solution — creating a nation state for the Palestinians alongside Israel — might be the preferred option.
Unlike the Obama administration, which often condemned Israeli settlement activity, Trump and his advisers have indicated that they do not view the settlements as the main impediment to peace.
About 400,000 Jewish settlers live in 125 settlements and 100 outposts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, which is also considered occupied under international law.
Palestinians are vehemently opposed to the existence of Israeli settlements, seeing them as an expansion of Israel into territory they hope will one day be part of a Palestinian state. Much of the international community views Israeli settlements as illegal.
“It’s not just the land,” said Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “The real question is how many more settlers are going to be living there. How many more settlers will they have to figure out how to remove or compensate in the context of a peace deal? Creating a new settlement just makes the problem significantly worse.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said the decision was indicative of Israel’s aim to “displace Palestine and replace it with ‘Greater Israel.’ ”
Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, which monitors settlement activity, said in a statement that the West Bank is already fragmented by Israeli settlement expansion. The organization called Netanyahu’s new policy ambiguous, and that it essentially means “the state will go on building as it pleases.”
Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, the umbrella body for Israeli settlements, said he welcomed the cabinet’s decision to support new projects in the West Bank.
However, he said: “We will be monitoring the government very closely to see that these plans come to fruition, enabling a new era of building throughout our ancestral homeland.”
Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.