Hailing a “very, very warm” meeting with US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said the settlements were “an issue” but not “the issue” hindering peace with the Palestinians.
The remark came a day after Trump told Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit” during a joint press conference in the White House. The prime minister on Thursday met with US Vice President Mike Pence to discuss the establishment of a mechanism to coordinate on the issue.
“I think it’s an issue, but I don’t think it’s the issue,” Netanyahu told MSNBC’s “For the Record” on Thursday, regarding the settlements. “Because the real core of this conflict between us and the Palestinians is not this or that settlement, or this or that community, it’s the persistent and enduring refusal to recognize a Jewish state in any boundary.”
The prime minister said the settlement issue has “been ingrained in the public mind” as the central obstacle to peace.
“Mind you this is an issue we agreed to discuss. We’ve set up a mechanism to discuss a way to reach an understanding,” he added, referring to the Israeli and US governments.
In the interview, Netanyahu declined to compare Trump to former US president Barack Obama.
“I’m not going to start rating presidents. I will tell you though that I had a very, very warm meeting with President Trump. There was a great sense of kinship and friendship and I think that this is something the people of America feel toward the people of Israel. And, I assure you, the people of Israel feel deeply about the people of America,” he said.
The prime minister also did not explicitly endorse the two-state solution or a binational state. “I’ve always said that the labels are not important, the substance is important,” he remarked.
Netanyahu had responded to Trump’s request to rein in settlement activity on Wednesday by promising that Israel and the US would try to coordinate their positions on settlement construction in the West Bank, “so that we don’t bump into each other on this every time.”
After Netanyahu and Trump talked in the Oval Office following their press conference, the White House said the two “discussed the issue of Israeli settlement construction,” and “agreed to continue those discussions and to work out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security.”
In a briefing session with Israeli and international reporters after the meeting, Netanyahu confirmed the Trump administration and Israel “want to reach agreement [on settlements]. We discussed it and will continue to discuss it in order to get to an agreement.”
Netanyahu also said that recently announced plans for some 6,000 housing units in various settlements across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem would still go ahead. However, he was hesitant to talk about the establishment of a new settlement, which he promised the settler community as compensation for Amona, an illegal outpost that was evacuated last month due to a court order that determined it was built on private Palestinian land. And he indicated that he would at least consider Trump’s request that he rein in settlements.
Plans for a new settlement were “still being negotiated,” Netanyahu said, but “if there’s a request to examine this issue from so friendly a president, I think it’s appropriate to make the effort.” He added: “In Jerusalem, we’ll continue to build, and everything we’ve already announced will be built. But, on the rest, we need to discuss [it] and reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said, adding that while the US and Israel see “eye to eye on the rest of the issues, we must examine any request on this issue because it is in our interest.”
Later, however, his office issued a short statement asserting that “there are inaccurate headlines [appearing on this issue]. The prime minister did not say that he was prepared to discuss reining in construction.”