USA Foreign Policy First Look

How far does Trump's support for Israeli settlements go?

The White House has qualified its stance on Israeli settlements, as the first contours of the US-Israel relationship under President Trump begin to take shape.

Palestinian men work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017.
Ariel Schalit/AP
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The White House said on Thursday that it did not believe Israeli settlements in occupied territories posed “an impediment to peace,” while adding that the expansion of settlements beyond current borders “may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” in its first statement of note on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The second half of the statement appeared to signal some outer limit to President Trump’s previously unqualified support for the settlements. Since the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to expand settlements, including the construction of some 6,000 new homes.

But Israeli officials appear to have taken the comments more as a thumbs-up than as a shift to a tougher line.

"Netanyahu will be happy," a senior Israeli diplomat told Reuters in a text message. "Pretty much carte blanche to build as much as we want in existing settlements as long as we don't enlarge their physical acreage. No problem there."

And a right-wing deputy foreign minister from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, Tzipi Hotovely, told the news service the White House had concluded that “more building is not the problem” and would go on unhindered.

The news appears to provide the first contours of the US-Israel relationship under Trump, whose entry into office is expected to mark an era of unprecedented US sympathy toward Israeli expansionism.

As Naomi Darom reported for The Christian Science Monitor in November, Trump’s election was greeted with “nothing short of euphoria” by the Israeli right.

“The right is convinced that anything is possible now,” says Shlomi Eldar, columnist for Al Monitor Israeli Pulse. “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 says. “There’s a feeling that, ‘Here, we made it, and the sky’s the limit.’ ”

Under former President Obama, the United States maintained firm opposition to settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, calling them obstacles to peace – to the detriment of the administration's relationship with Netanyahu. And this week, the European Union and Britain criticized Netanyahu’s plans for settlement expansion as undermining the prospects of a Palestinian state.

In January, the Monitor reported that Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman had made the second of two separate announcements of additional settlement plans in the first week of Trump’s presidency:

Most of the 2,500 units, said Lieberman, would be in existing settlement “blocs,” areas where most settlers live and which Israel would be likely to want to keep under its control under any future peace deal with the Palestinians. The Defense Ministry administers land captured in the 1967 War....

On Sunday, the Jerusalem City Council approved an additional 566 new housing units in a contested part of East Jerusalem, a project that been delayed over former Mr. Obama’s objections....

But Palestinians say Tuesday’s announcement will do nothing more than fuel violence and instability in the region.

"The decision will hinder any attempt to restore security and stability, it will reinforce extremism and terrorism and will place obstacles in the path of any effort to start a peace process that will lead to security and peace," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, adding the announcement would have “consequences.”

Some of those settlement plans – those not in existing blocs – would have to be discarded to fit into the framework outlined by the White House’s statement.

Netanyahu's expansion announcements came in the opening days of the Trump presidency – a time when, as the Monitor’s Peter Ford notes, US rivals and allies alike tend to probe new administrations – suggesting Israel’s plans may have served partly to test the waters.

The White House statement may also have been beneficial for Netanyahu, who could point to those limits in response to pressure from pro-settlement allies on the far right.

The two leaders will meet for the first time on Feb. 15, when Trump receives Netanyahu in Washington, D.C.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.