Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will set out for Washington on Monday for his first meeting with US President Donald Trump since he took office three weeks ago, testing a new but yet uncertain relationship amid a number of Israeli moves that would have raised hackles with the previous administration of Barack Obama.
Since Trump’s inauguration last month, Israel has approved thousands of new housing units over the Green Line, announced plans for the creation of the first new settlement in two decades, and passed the controversial outpost legalization bill into law. The White House has refrained from condemning these moves, having signaled a more accommodating approach toward settlement activity, but warned earlier this month they may not be “helpful.”
And in a more direct critique of the issue, Trump said in an interview published on Friday in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom, that settlement growth was not “good for peace.”
The remarks have caught many Israelis by surprise as Trump has also been edging away from a campaign pledge to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying “we will see what happens.” Mark Heller, a political scientist at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, said the embassy issue was “marginal, to the extent that such a promise is unlikely to be kept”.
Heeding Trump’s warning and the climate of uncertainty, Netanyahu reportedly told the high-level security cabinet on Sunday ahead of his departure for the US that those convinced there will be no restrictions on West Bank settlement construction during the Trump administration are mistaken.
The prime minister warned ministers during the four-hour meeting that the Trump administration, while friendlier than the Obama administration, would not tolerate unlimited construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Channel 2 reported.
He also cautioned ministers that Israel must tread lightly, avoid confrontation, and take Trump’s “personality into account,” the TV report said.
“In Washington, Benjamin Netanyahu will test his room to maneuver (with Trump) on settlements,” Heller told AFP.
“For [the past] three weeks Donald Trump has been speaking differently,” said Michael Oren, deputy minister in charge of diplomacy in Netanyahu’s office. “We must act cautiously.”
On the agenda for their meeting on Wednesday, Netanyahu and Trump are set to discuss Iran, Syria and the Palestinians, as well as issues related to security and intelligence coordination.
During his three-day visit, Netanyahu will 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.