As Trump criticizes settlements, Netanyahu prepares for their first summit

PM convenes ministers and top defense officials ahead of Wednesday’s Oval Office meet; will also see Pence, Tillerson, Ryan

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

As US President Donald Trump continues to signal that his Middle East policies will be less friendly toward the current Israeli government than many in Jerusalem had hoped, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office over the weekend finalized the program for the two leaders’ meeting on Wednesday in the Oval Office.

Netanyahu, who is leaving for Washington DC on Monday for a three-day trip, is set to also meet with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other top officials.

Netanyahu’s wife Sara is also scheduled to meet Melania Trump.

“The Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council and other defense agencies are getting ready and are convening consultations ahead of the meeting between the prime minister and President Trump,” a senior official in the PMO said Saturday evening.

Israel’s ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, was in Israel last week to assist in the preparations for Wednesday’s meeting, the official said. On Thursday, Netanyahu hosted a meeting with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Mossad director Yossi Cohen, the heads of the army’s research and military intelligence branches, and the director of the Atomic Energy Commission, the official said.

Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer speaks to media at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer speaks to media at Trump Tower, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“On the agenda [were] Iran, Syria and the Palestinians,” he said. “Israel won’t agree to an Iranian presence in Syria, in any conceivable agreement.”

Other matters the Israeli delegation wants to discuss with the US administration include security and intelligence coordination, the official added.

The Foreign Ministry prepared “several positions papers” on various topics ahead of the Trump-Netanyahu summit, the official said. The ministry’s director-general, Yuval Rotem, presented them to the prime minister last week.

On Sunday, Netanyahu is convening a special cabinet session to hear his ministers’ views on the various matters on the agenda for his White House meeting. Following Sunday’s cabinet session, the prime minister will “present to the president Israel’s national interest as he understands it.”

At the same time, an Israeli government official warned cabinet ministers not to voice their opinions before Trump tells Netanyahu, behind closed doors, about his positions. Such comments by Israeli politicians ahead of Wednesday’s meeting “risk sabotaging” the talks.

“The two leaders have good and warm relations, and this needs to be strengthened,” the official said.

But Trump, who consistently portrays himself as unflinchingly pro-Israel, caught many Israelis by surprise two days ago when he spoke out against settlement expansion and said he was still unsure about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In an interview published Friday in the Israel Hayom newspaper, the president said Israeli settlements in the West Bank “don’t help the process” of reaching peace. “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” he said. “But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

This was not the first time that the Trump administration has expressed reservations over Israel’s settlement construction, but it was the first time the president had personally commented on the issue, and his remarks were more critical than those of his spokesman. Earlier last week the White House issued a mild rebuke over a spate of approvals for new settlement homes, warning that expansion in areas Palestinians want for their own state “may not be helpful” to peace efforts. “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,” press secretary Sean Spicer said on February 3.

In Friday’s interview, Trump said he was anticipating stronger ties between Israel and the US as well as a strong personal connection with Netanyahu, and expressed his hopes for a regional peace deal, something that eluded his predecessors.

“I think we are going to have a better relationship [with Israel],” he said.

Pressed on his campaign pledge to relocated the US embassy, Trump said: “I am thinking about the embassy, I am studying the embassy [issue], and we will see what happens. The embassy is not an easy decision. It has obviously been out there for many, many years, and nobody has wanted to make that decision. I’m thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.”

According to several media reports, Trump administration officials have been reaching out to Ramallah with reassuring messages regarding settlements and the potential embassy relocation. According to one newspaper, Trump is expected to personally brief Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas following his meeting with Netanyahu.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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