The White House on Thursday said it had not yet taken a position on the construction of new Israeli settlements, but suggested they “may not be helpful” in securing peace.
“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,” said spokesman Sean Spicer.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 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.
Spicer said Trump looks forward to continuing to discuss the issue with Netanyahu when the latter 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.
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.
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu had instructed a team to look into possible locations for the new settlement. The team consists of his chief of staff, representatives of the settlement movement and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s adviser for settlement affairs.
The statement said Netanyahu a month and a half ago promised the settlers a new community if efforts to save Amona failed.
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.
US President Donald Trump has signaled a more tolerant approach to Israel’s settlement enterprise. He has nominated a prominent US supporter of the settlements, attorney David Friedman, to be his ambassador to Israel, and a delegation of settler leaders was invited to his inauguration.
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.
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 Spicer’s latest statement, from the Trump White House.
Netanyahu’s announcement of plans for a new settlement was made Wednesday as police were evacuating the West Bank outpost, which the High Court of Justice has long held was built on privately owned Palestinian land.
After years of legal wrangling, the High Court in 2014 ordered the government to evacuate and demolish the hilltop community by December 25, 2016. But under fierce pressure from settlers and their Knesset supporters, the government sought to reach a compromise with residents that would allow them to remain in their homes without circumventing the court.
In late December, a deal was struck that would see 24 of the outpost’s 41 families moved to an adjacent plot of land on the same hilltop, while the rest would relocate to the nearby settlement of Ofra.
But local Palestinians objected to the government plan, saying the adjacent plot was also privately owned, and the High Court earlier on Wednesday sided with the Palestinian complainants, overriding the deal.
With moving to the adjacent plot off the table, an Amona spokesperson told The Times of Israel that residents would agree to relocating the entire settlement.
“In the absence of any other option, the residents will accept the offer to establish a new settlement,” Ofer Inbar said.