JERUSALEM — President Trump warned Israel on Friday that building more homes in Jewish settlements was not “good for peace” and said he wanted Israel to “act reasonably” as his administration explores paths to broker peace talks.
Trump’s comments to an Israeli newspaper, published Friday, appeared as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with advisers to plot strategy for his first face-to-face meeting in the White House with Trump, scheduled for Wednesday.
Israel considers the prime minister’s first official meeting with the U.S. president as vitally important — a way to reset relations after years of feuding and policy clashes with the Obama administration.
Since Trump’s inauguration, Israel’s pro-settlement government has hoped Trump would give a green light to a building boom in the West Bank on land that Jewish residents say was promised to them by God and that Palestinians want for a future state.
But those expectations might be overly optimistic.
In the interview with Israel Hayom — a widely circulated free newspaper owned by a Netanyahu patron, the Vegas casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson — Trump offered new insights into his thinking on the long-running conflict between Israel and Palestinians. Adelson dined at the White House on Thursday night.
Trump suggested that he is reviewing his campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s declared capital, Jerusalem — a relocation that many Israelis, including the mayor of Jerusalem, have said they thought was a done deal.
“I’m thinking about it. I’m learning the issue and we’ll see what happens,” Trump was quoted as saying in the interview, which was conducted in English and translated into Hebrew. “It’s not an easy decision. It’s been discussed for so many years. No one wants to make this decision, and I’m thinking about it seriously.”
Former U.S. diplomats, Palestinians and Arab leaders such as King Abdullah II of Jordan have warned Trump that the embassy move could stoke religious passions and spark violence, as Muslims rally to defend what they see as a threat against their holy places in the heart of Jerusalem.
Trump said he wanted to explore the possibilities for making what he has called “the ultimate deal,” a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians. He is deploying his son-in-law — and now senior adviser on the Middle East — Jared Kushner to the task.
“No deal is a good deal if it isn’t good for all sides,” Trump told the newspaper. “We are currently in a process that has been going on for a long time. Decades. A lot of people think that it can’t be done. And a lot of smart people around me claim that you can’t reach an agreement. I don’t agree. I think we can reach an agreement and that we need to reach an agreement.”
In Netanyahu’s government, his right-wing flank, including members of his own Likud party, are pressing the prime minister to abandon his support for the two-state solution, which he professed in a speech at an Israeli university in 2009.
Netanyahu’s tepid support for a Palestinian state often has been questioned by European leaders as well as former secretary of state John F. Kerry. Netanyahu has wavered on his commitment, once promising voters that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch and recently assuring his cabinet that he would support only what he called a “state-minus” for Arabs in the West Bank.
In the interview, Trump warned: “I want Israel to act reasonably in the peace process and that it will finally happen after so many years. And maybe there will even be a possibility of a bigger peace than just Israel and the Palestinians. I want both sides to act reasonably and we have a good chance at that.”
Trump suggested that peace talks would involve moderate Arab nations such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The 2002 Arab peace initiative, brokered by the Saudis, promises Israel peaceful relations and recognition in exchange for a full Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Trump questioned Netanyahu’s claim that the settlements were not an obstacle to peace. The U.S. president, who has spent years in New York real estate, zeroed in on land and location.
“There is limited remaining territory,” Trump said of the West Bank. “Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains. I’m not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace. But we are examining a number of options.”
More than 60 percent of the West Bank is under complete Israeli military and civilian control, where even permissions for Palestinians to add a barn or plow a field must be approved by the military government. The same territory is home to more than 400,000 Jewish settlers living in 125 established communities and another 100 outposts, many of them deemed illegal even under Israeli law.
Trump said that he had no interest in criticizing Israel.
Netanyahu and his ministers bristled under the barrage of condemnations by then-President Barack Obama and the State Department, which opposed settlement expansion and would issue statements each time a few hundred units were approved for construction.
“Israel has a long history of condemnations and difficulties. I don’t want to condemn Israel during my term,” Trump said. “I understand Israel very well and have a lot of appreciation for it. Israelis have gone through very difficult times. I want peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and beyond that I think peace for Israel will be great for Israel, not just good.”