White House says no ‘formal negotiations’ with Israel on settlements
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White House says no ‘formal negotiations’ with Israel on settlements

Administration official says reports of suspended US-Israel settlement talks are 'inaccurate,' claims discussions only part of broader attempt to push peace process

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on this March 31, 2017 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with the National Association of Manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on this March 31, 2017 (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — The White House is not holding “formal negotiations” with Israel over its settlement presence in the West Bank — contrary to widespread reporting in US and Israeli media — an administration official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

“I would dissuade you from the notion that there is some set of formal negotiations regarding settlements,” the official said. “We continuously discuss a range of issues, including how to improve the overall climate.”

The statement, coming days after Israel announced it would curtail some building in the West Bank, would seem to fly in the face of several official statements from both Washington and Jerusalem about ongoing talks that included possible curbs on settlement activity.

The official did not elaborate on what was meant by “formal negotiations,” but said the settlements did not form the core of discussions between US and Israeli officials.

Earlier on Sunday, Israel Radio reported that US efforts to limit Israel’s settlement construction — led by Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt — were suspended after the two parties failed to reach an agreement.

“These reports are inaccurate,” the official insisted.

Greenblatt recently returned from his second trip to the region since Trump assumed the presidency in January.

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

During those visits — which were an attempt to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations — he met with multiple stakeholders in the conflict, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

After the first round of discussions between Greenblatt and Netanyahu in March, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement that said the two made “progress on the issue of Israeli settlement construction following up on President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s agreement in Washington last month to work out an approach that reflects both leaders’ views.”

Greenblatt also held four days of high-level discussions with an Israeli delegation in Washington in which no agreement was forged regarding Israeli settlements

The White House official said settlements were discussed in those meetings only as a component of broader efforts to revitalize the peace process.

US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)
US President Donald Trump, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

While Trump has appeared more tolerant of Israeli settlement activity than former president Barack Obama, he told Netanyahu at a joint press conference in February that he wanted Israel to “hold back on settlements for a bit.”

Netanyahu told members of the security cabinet Thursday that Israel would curtail West Bank settlement construction to within existing settlement boundaries or, in most cases, adjacent to them. “This is a very friendly administration and we need to be considerate of the president’s requests,” he said.

The Trump administration — which has held the position that settlements are not “an impediment to peace,” but at the same time do not “help to advance peace” — expressed its approval of this move.

“The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the president’s concerns into consideration,” the White House official told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “The United States welcomes this.”

View of the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumin, in the West Bank on January 4, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)
View of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumin, in the West Bank on January 4, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s announcement came hours after the security cabinet approved plans to establish a new settlement in the West Bank for families evicted from the Amona outpost.

The wildcat outpost was razed in February after the High Court of Justice ruled it had been built illegally on private Palestinian land and Netanyahu promised residents he would approve the establishment of a another settlement for them.

The new settlement will be Israel’s first in some 25 years. While Israel stopped establishing new settlements in the early 1990s — after the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed — some outposts constructed since have been given retroactive approval, and existing settlements have expanded their geographical parameters.

Trump is scheduled to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah this week, and will host PA President Abbas at the White House some time this month, as part of his continued efforts to broker a deal between the two sides.

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