After more than five hours of talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump administration envoy Jason Greenblatt on Monday, at which President Trump’s public call to rein in settlement building was discussed, very wide gaps remain between the sides. The complex bid to coordinate positions will now be taken up by Greenblatt and Israel’s Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, Israel’s Army Radio reported on Tuesday.
In principle, Israel wants to be able to build anywhere within the “city limits” (t’hum hashiput) of all settlements, potentially tripling the settlement enterprise, the radio report said. For its part, the Trump administration has thus far indicated only that building in East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods such as Pisgat Ze’ev, Neve Yaakov and Gilo can continue. As regards US support for any settlement expansion outside Jerusalem — be it at isolated settlements or inside the major settlement blocs — “there’s a problem,” the radio report said.
Asked by The Times of Israel about the report, the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.
Many on the Israeli right had anticipated that Trump would be more supportive of the settlement enterprise than his predecessor Barack Obama, but at a press conference last month with Netanyahu, the new president publicly asked the prime minister to “hold back on settlements a little bit.”
And in an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper shortly before Netanyahu’s US visit, Trump said that settlements “don’t help the process.” He added: “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
The Trump administration’s assent to building in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem annexed by Israel would represent a change in position from the Obama years; the previous administration routinely criticized all building beyond the pre-1967 Green Line. The administration of George W. Bush agreed understandings with the government of Ariel Sharon to the effect that Israel would not return to the pre-1967 lines in any permanent peace accord, and recognizing the major settlement blocs, and some analysts believe that the Trump administration might revive such understandings.
Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), who is close to Netanyahu, said Tuesday that he had always remained sober when it came to assessing likely policy changes between the Obama and Trump administration, and that others on the right were now recognizing the good sense of this.
“I think there is a sobering up (on the right). I always said there was no place for celebrations and festivities. Trump is certainly a friend of Israel. But when it comes to the Palestinian issue, I didn’t see a radical difference in policy and rhetoric. Those celebrations were premature and inefficient,” Steinitz told Army Radio.
Steinitz said the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim should be annexed, but that this was a matter of timing, and that the American Embassy should be in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Anything else was “absurd,” he said. On moving the embassy, he said, “I personally believe that Trump will stand by his clear commitment to relocate the embassy.”
According to a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office after Monday’s Netanyahu-Greenblatt talks, the two men discussed Israeli settlements “in the hope of working out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security.”
Greenblatt took to Twitter later to say that he and Netanyahu “discussed [the] regional situation, how progress towards peace with Palestinians can be made & settlements.”
Greenblatt’s visit marks the first major attempt by the new US administration to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after two months that have seen officials dither on support for the two-state solution, the location of the US Embassy and building in settlements.
In Washington prior to Greenblatt’s trip, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters the issue of settlements would be discussed. “We see them as a challenge that needs to be addressed at some point,” Toner said.