Netanyahu chief of staff heads to US to sort out settlements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz left for Washington on Sunday to discuss settlement building with the Trump administration.

He will join Ron Dermer, Israel’s Washington ambassador, to continue discussions with US special envoy Jason Greenblatt in an attempt to reach an understanding between Israel and US President Donald Trump’s administration about building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu left Israel on Saturday night for a three day trip to China, and the fact that Horowitz did not accompany the prime minister but went instead to Washington highlights the importance of the negotiations with the US.

Greenblatt visited Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan last week to gain a deeper understanding of the situation. Despite two meetings with Netanyahu during the course of the visit, no agreement was reached on settlement construction.

Netanyahu and Greenblatt made “progress on the issue of Israeli settlement construction following up on President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement in Washington last month to work out an approach that reflects both leaders’ views,” said a statement from Netanyahu’s office issued after the second three-hour meeting Thursday night.

“Those discussions are continuing between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office,” it said.

Netanyahu and the Trump White House have been trying to reach an understanding on Israeli settlement activity since last month’s meeting between the Israeli leader and the US president, who in a joint press conference told Netanyahu that he wanted him to “hold back” on the settlements.

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC on February 15, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Netanyahu has been trying to get the White House’s approval for the construction of a new settlement — the first in some 25 years — to replace the illegal outpost of Amona, which was evacuated and demolished last month.

Last month, he indicated to members of his security cabinet that the government may have to back off the pledge, drawing vociferous protests from the settlers and their allies in the coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump's special representative for international negotiations, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

The Israeli prime minister has also been actively trying to avoid friction on other fronts related to settlements, pushing to postpone a Knesset committee vote next week on a bill that calls to annex the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim.

On Thursday, Greenblatt sat down for an unprecedented session with a delegation from the settler umbrella group the Yesha Council, led by Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi and Shomron Regional Council head Yossi Dagan — a meeting that according to Channel 2 was coordinated with Netanyahu.

Ahead of Greenblatt’s trip to Israel, Dagan told Likud ministers that a Netanyahu agreement to rein in settlement construction, or to a partial freeze of settlements, would lead to political crisis, Channel 2 reported, adding that the settler movement has argued that the freeze imposed by the administration of former president Barack Obama constituted “a breach of their human rights.”

A statement from the Yesha Council following the meeting with Greenblatt described it as “fruitful and positive,” and added that the council “looks forward to continuing this important dialogue.”

Channel 10 reported that officials who have met with Greenblatt over the past several days came away with a sense that the administration is determined to make progress on a regional peace accord, with talk of convening a possible regional conference in the coming months, and that White House efforts to get Israel to rein in settlements would come into play then.

Netanyahu said earlier Thursday that Israel was “in the middle of a process of dialogue with the White House and it is our intention to get to an agreed-upon policy on construction in the settlements.”

He noted that it was preferable to reach such understandings quickly rather than engaging in drawn-out negotiations.

Many on the Israeli right had anticipated that Trump would be more supportive of the settlement enterprise than his predecessor Barack Obama. However, last month, at a joint White House press conference with Netanyahu, Trump asked the prime minister to “hold back on settlements a little bit.” He also said in a newspaper interview that Israeli settlements “don’t help” in negotiating a peace agreement.

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