For the past two weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to sell the Israeli public on the idea of unconditional support from President Donald Trump, but on Friday morning, Netanyahu awoke to learn that Trump's support may have its limits.
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After midnight Jerusalem time, White House press secretary Sean Spicer released a cautionary statement on the heels of Israel's most dramatic settlement expansion in decades.
"While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace," reads the statement released by the press secretary, "the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal."
Spicer added, "The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions."
Chemi Shalev, a Washington-based reporter for Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, wrote Friday that, "The White House statement was a shot across the bow to Netanyahu that there's a limit to everything."
But as to what that "limit" may be, no one seems sure.
Since Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Netanyahu has announced the approval of more than 6,000 housing units in the occupied Palestinian territories, in both East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the first new settlement since the 1990s. And until Thursday, there had not been a word from the new U.S. administration on the building plans.
An emboldened Netanyahu declared during Trump's first week in office that the early settlement approvals were just a "taste" of what's to come. "We are going to be doing many things differently from now on," he said.
Netanyahu also said he saw "significant opportunities" in a Trump presidency. The prime minister tweeted, "We're building and we'll continue to build."
Earlier, on Election Day in the U.S., Netanyahu's chief political rival and leader of the far-right Jewish Home Party, Neftali Bennett, announced that "the era of a Palestinian state is over.” Bennett has advocated for the annexation of the West Bank to Israel, a move that analysts say Netanyahu is not comfortable with.
In the wake of the White House statement about settlements, Netanyahu has remained quiet.
Similarly, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in a settlement, expressed optimism for the Trump era after the first round of housing announcements. "We're returning to normal life in Judea and Samaria," he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. But he offered no reaction to the White House statement Thursday.
Every U.S. administration for the last 50 years has viewed Jewish settlements in the occupied territories as an impediment to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The United Nations has been far tougher, and when President Barack Obama’s administration chose to allow a U.N. resolution against Israeli settlements to pass in December, then-President-elect Trump criticized the move.
The U.N. resolution reaffirmed that Israel’s continued building in Palestinian territory has “no legal validity” and is “a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security,” as a U.N. press statement says.
Similarly, the most recent report from the Middle East Quartet, the group trying to mediate a peace agreement consisting of the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the European Union, makes clear the international community’s opposition to continued settlement building.
“The Quartet emphasizes its strong opposition to ongoing settlement activity, which is an obstacle to peace, and expresses its grave concern that the acceleration of settlement construction and expansion is steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution," the report stated.
Given Trump’s negative view of the U.N. resolution and his campaign rhetoric about Israel, the White House statement seemed to some to show a shift for the new president.
The most recent U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, Dan Shapiro, tweeted Friday that the statement, "tells us that Trump's opposition [to] settlement activity, as a negative factor in [Middle East] peacemaking, is in continuity w/ US policy [for] many years."
Others on both sides of the settlement issue see it differently.
"Let me say it again," tweeted Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli academic and columnist for the American Prospect, "Trump has not returned to historic U.S. policy on settlements. He has significantly softened it."
Gorenberg also said the White House statement suggests that the Trump administration is fine with increasing the size of current settlements if they stay within their current borders.
"Trump statement also gives green light to unrestricted building within existing settlements," he tweeted.
Israel's ambassador to the U.N. in New York, Danny Danon, was the first Israeli official to respond Friday to the White House statement. Speaking to Israel Radio on Friday morning, Danon downplayed its significance.
“I would not categorize this as a U-turn by the U.S. administration, but the issue is clearly on their agenda,” Danon said. “We don’t always agree on everything. The subject needs to be explored when Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with President Trump in Washington.” Netanyahu is slated to meet with Trump in Washington on Feb. 15.
Danon added, “This period seems to be much better than the last eight years," referring to the Obama administration.
Among other right-wing politicians, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said to her coalition Friday the Trump administration doesn’t have a final say on the subject.
“The current Israeli government was elected to act on the Jewish People’s right to build in all parts of our land and we must respect the will of the people who elected us for this purpose.
And, Oded Reviv, chief foreign envoy for the YESHA Council, which represents the settlement population in the West Bank, thanked Trump. "The YESHA Council thanks the White House for asserting that our communities were never an impediment to peace. ... We look forward to working closely with our friends in the new Trump administration to build a brighter future for all."