USA Foreign Policy First Look

In 'very warm' phone call, Donald Trump invites Benjamin Netanyahu to US

The two leaders discussed the nuclear deal with Iran and the peace process with the Palestinians, but didn't publicly acknowledge talking about a US embassy move to the Holy City. 

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the lobby of Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, on January 11, 2017, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on January 22, 2017 in a combination of file photos.
Lucas Jackson/ Ronen Zvulun/ Reuters | Caption

President Trump described a phone conversation with Israel's prime minister on Sunday as “very nice,” while Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it was “very warm.” But the two leaders don’t appear to have discussed the elephant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: whether the US embassy in Israel will move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Instead, Mr. Trump invited Mr. Netanyahu to Washington next month.

The Trump administration is expected to be much more sympathetic than the Obama administration to Israeli hard-liner attitudes about the West Bank and the contested city of Jerusalem. Trump’s appointed ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has close ties to Jewish West Bank settlements, as does the foundation run by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Trump, too, has promised to be the first president to move the embassy to Jerusalem, a move Obama officials and Israeli security forces said would lead to more violence.

So far, however, Trump and his team have yet to act, with his press secretary saying hours ahead of the phone call on Sunday that the administration is “at the very beginning stages of even discussing” the move to the Holy City.

In Sunday’s phone conversation, Netanyahu and Trump did talk about the international nuclear deal with Iran, the peace process with the Palestinians and other issues, according to Netanyahu’s office. According to a White House statement, Trump also told Netanyahu that Israel and the Palestinians must work toward peace themselves.

"[P]eace between Israel and the Palestinians can only be negotiated directly between the two parties," Trump told the Israeli leader, adding that "the United States will work closely with Israel to make progress towards that goal."

Hours ahead of Sunday’s conversation, right-wing Israeli politicians had been pushing the government to act on settlement building. Led by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the municipality granted final approval on Sunday for 566 new homes in contested east Jerusalem, with Deputy Mayor Meir Turjeman, who heads the city’s housing committee, saying an additional 11,000 homes are planned in east Jerusalem. The 566 permits had been put on hold for the final months of the Obama administration.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, had also been pressuring the government to back legislation to annex Maaleh Adumim, a sprawling West Bank settlement just east of Jerusalem, which many Israelis consider a suburb of the city. But Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet, which includes Mr. Bennet, agreed to postpone a vote on the annexation proposal until after the meeting between Netanyahu and Trump next month.  

An official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal coalition negotiations, told the Associated Press that Netanyahu had been asked by members of the Trump administration not to take any major action without proper coordination.

The Israeli right has celebrated the American president’s victory, as Naomi Darom reported for the Monitor in November.

“The right is convinced that anything is possible now,” Shlomi Eldar, a columnist for Al Monitor Israeli Pulse, told The Christian Science Monitor at the time. “The two-state solution can be erased, there will be no problem building in the settlements – the Messiah has come.”

“Their congratulations of Trump go beyond a symbolic gesture toward an elected president,” he said. “There’s a feeling that, ‘Here, we made it, and the sky’s the limit.’ ”

But Netanyahu hasn’t been as outspoken as his far-right colleagues. The Israeli leader, accused of meddling in US politics in the 2012 presidential election and his address to Congress three years later, was very careful this time to not appear partisan.

But the prospect some right-wing Israelis are most excited about – the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem – could prove a dangerous proposition. A number of Arab ambassadors to Washington have met with Trump advisers and warned them of the possible consequences. Former Secretary of State John Kerry said the move could lead to “an absolute explosion” in the region, and Israeli security forces have presented Netanyahu and senior ministers with scenarios of worsening violence should Trump announce the relocation of the US embassy, according to Haaretz. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.