Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon on Friday morning sought to downplay a rebuke from the Trump White House on the construction of new Israeli settlements, saying the statement did not reflect a policy shift, but rather indicated that the subject was on the administration’s radar.
The statement, Danon told Israel Radio, was a sign from the new administration that it has not yet set policy regarding the settlements and would do so following the upcoming talks between the Israeli and American leaders later this month.
“I wouldn’t call it a U-turn, the statement is very clear. The meaning is: Wait until the meeting with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who arrives in Washington in less than two weeks for a meeting with President [Donald] Trump and then set policy,” Danon said.
In the less than two weeks since Trump took office, Israel has announced the construction of some 6,000 new homes in existing settlements, drawing rebuke from the international community, but not — until Thursday night — from the Trump White House.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday night: “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful.”
Danon called the statement “a signal from the administration that the issue is on the agenda.”
“The administration and the president said they intend to advance the process in the region, both talks with regional leaders and during the election campaign,” he said.
But, the ambassador and former Likud minister added that Israel would determine its own policies.
“We are a sovereign state,” Danon said. “We will not be in full agreement with the United States on everything over the next four years, but there is communication and messages are being passed.”
He also favorably compared the new administration to the policies of the Obama administration, which in its final days declined to veto an anti-settlement resolution at the UN, thereby guaranteeing its passage.
“This period seems to be much better than the last eight years,” Danon said.
Spicer also said Thursday that Trump was looking forward to continuing to discuss the issue with Netanyahu when he visits the White House on February 15. Later Thursday, the State Department said new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson phoned Netanyahu. It was not immediately clear what the two discussed.
Meanwhile, the Yesha Council of settlements chose Friday to highlight the apparent US support for the communities in general, and glossed over the warning about unbridled construction.
“The Yesha Council thanks the White House for asserting that our communities were never an impediment to peace,” said Oded Revivi, the council’s spokesman. “Nothing is more natural and morally just than Jews building in Judea. We look forward to working closely with our friends in the new Trump administration to build a brighter future all.”
Netanyahu on Wednesday announced plans for the establishment of a new West Bank settlement to replace the illegal outpost of Amona, which was evacuated and largely demolished on Wednesday and Thursday in keeping with a High Court of Justice order.
The settlement would be the first new one to be built in some 25 years.
While Israel stopped establishing settlements in the early 1990s, outposts set up since then have been retroactively given approval, and existing settlements have expanded their footprints, sometimes being neighborhoods of existing settlements in name only.
Settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem are viewed by nearly all the international community as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians envision for their future state.
Trump had signaled a more tolerant approach to Israel’s settlement enterprise, nominating a prominent US settlements supporter, David Friedman, to be his ambassador to Israel. He also invited a delegation of settler leaders to his inauguration last month.
This has both emboldened and created difficulties for Netanyahu, who repeatedly clashed with President Barack Obama over settlements. The sense that the pressure against settlement building disappeared with the end of Obama’s tenure has led to calls from Netanyahu’s right to renew widespread construction that was brought to a crawl during his term, and even raised demands for annexation of certain large settlement blocs, including the city of Ma’ale Adumim.