Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told the high-level security cabinet on Sunday that those convinced there will be no restrictions on West Bank settlement construction during the Trump administration are mistaken. He also cautioned that Israel must not get into a confrontation with the US president, and reportedly said Trump’s personality must be taken “into account.”
Since US President Donald Trump has entered office, 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, but warned earlier this month they may not be “helpful.”
Netanyahu is scheduled to leave for Washington on Monday ahead of a meeting with Trump on Wednesday. The two men last met at the end of the September, some six weeks before Trump’s election victory.
But 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 cautioned ministers that Israel must tread lightly and take Trump’s “personality into account,” the TV report said.
The prime minister’s warning came days after Trump for the first time criticized settlements, in an interview with the Israel Hayom daily. Settlements, Trump said, “don’t help the [peace] process.” He added: “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. 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.”
According to a separate report on Sunday, Netanyahu also revealed details of his telephone conversation with Trump on January 22, in which the US president insisted the Palestinians could be pushed to make concessions for peace over Netanyahu’s protestations.
Citing an official familiar with events at the meeting, the Haaretz daily said Trump asked Netanyahu to explain how the Israeli leader intends to act to achieve a final peace agreement. Netanyahu told him that although he backs the two-state solution, he doesn’t believe that the Palestinians will make the required concessions. Trump responded by reassuring Netanyahu that the Palestinians will be flexible.
“They will want, they will make concessions,” Trump told Netanyahu, according to the official, who requested anonymity.
The US president has voiced support for clinching a peace deal, appointing his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a special envoy to oversee the process.
The prime minister shared details of the phone call with the security cabinet after Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked urged him to convince Trump to withdraw US backing for the two-state solution, according to the report.
Bennett and Shaked, both from the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, as well as other government ministers, have increasingly talked of extending Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, a move that is tantamount to annexation of the territory that Palestinians want for a future state.
“Trump believes in a deal and in running peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” the prime minister was quoted as saying in response. “We should be careful and not do things that will cause everything to break down. We mustn’t get into a confrontation with him.”
Netanyahu reportedly told the ministers he would declare his commitment to the two-state solution, but would also continue to spotlight the Palestinians’ reluctance to reach a peace deal. He said he would reiterate that West Bank settlements are not the main cause of the conflict, but rather the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman backed up Netanyahu during the meeting, telling ministers that the first meeting between the two leaders was more about building a relationship than policy-building, the newspaper report said. Liberman said he was planning to travel to Washington to meet with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement late Sunday that the cabinet meeting came to an end after the ministers presented their positions on issues ranging from Iran, Syria and the Palestinians to Israel’s relations with the new US administration.
“All the ministers agreed that there’s great importance to strengthening ties with the US on the governmental and personal level,” the PMO said in a statement.
Contrary to Channel 2’s description of the meeting as “stormy,” the PMO took care to note that the meeting was “relaxed and professional.”