Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations, met Thursday with a delegation from the settler umbrella group the Yesha Council, led by Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi.
A statement from the Yesha Council described the meeting as “fruitful and positive,” and added that the council “looks forward to continuing this important dialogue.”
The US embassy confirmed the talks took place in Jerusalem as part of the White House official’s wide-ranging meetings this week.
The Yesha Council said it believed the meeting to be its highest level official meeting ever with a US administration.
The meeting was attended by Revivi and Yossi Dagan, the head of the Samaria regional council, the Yesha group said.
“Representatives from Yesha have met with John Kerry and others on the sidelines of events, but we have not had official meetings like this,” a spokesman said. “The previous administration never met like this.”
Israel’s Channel 2 news reported Thursday evening that the Greenblatt-settlers meeting was coordinated by the US envoy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It said Dagan, at a meeting with Likud ministers before Greenblatt’s trip, had warned that any Israeli government agreement to rein on or freeze settlement building would prompt “a political crisis.”
Israel’s settlement enterprise is a major source of dispute with the Palestinians. Settlements were branded illegal in UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed in December, 2016. The Obama Administration chose not to veto the resolution.
Trump, at a joint press conference with Israel’s Netanyahu at the White House last month, asked Israel to “hold back” a little on settlements, and in an earlier newspaper interview said “I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
A US government official said Greenblatt and the settler leaders “discussed the importance of moving forward, in a tangible way, towards peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official also said Greenblatt “reiterated to them President Trump’s previously expressed views regarding settlements” — a reference to Trump’s call to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, has met a range of people on both the Palestinian and Israeli side during his visit this week, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
He met Netanyahu again later on Thursday.
Greenblatt’s visit to the region marks the Trump administration’s dive into the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which the new US president said he intended to resolve.
Many have questioned Trump’s ability to pull off the feat that stumped previous administrations, especially with newly appointed advisers such as Greenblatt having no experience in Middle East diplomacy.
An Israeli analyst agreed that Greenblatt’s meeting with settler leaders was unusual, but said he did not disagree with it.
“I think what Jason Greenblatt is doing is to consult with all kinds of political forces,” Eytan Gilboa, an expert on Israeli-US relations with the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, told AFP.
“I think it’s a good thing he met them. He could have met Hamas as well as far as I’m concerned to see what they think about negotiations with Israel,” he added, referring to the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip and refuses to recognise Israel.
Last week, British foreign minister Boris Johnson met with anti-settlement NGO Peace Now during a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Israeli settler leaders had also called for Johnson to meet with them, but a British embassy official said the brief visit allowed no time to do so.