White House says no deal with Netanyahu on settlement slowdown, but will keep trying
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White House says no deal with Netanyahu on settlement slowdown, but will keep trying

After Trump tells PM to ‘hold back’ on construction, administration says leaders aim to ‘work out approach consistent with advancing peace, security’

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a thumbs-up alongside US President Donald Trump as he leaves following meetings at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a thumbs-up alongside US President Donald Trump as he leaves following meetings at the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will continue trying to reach a mutual understanding on Israeli settlement activity, the administration said Wednesday night, hours after the leaders concluded their first summit since Trump took office last month.

In the meeting, the president “reiterated his desire for peace throughout the Middle East” and “a comprehensive agreement that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to a White House readout of the discussion.

But when it came to the contentious issue of Israel’s continued West Bank settlement construction — which Trump told Netanyahu he wanted him to “hold back” on during their joint press conference earlier in the day — they had yet to finalize an approach.

The two “discussed the issue of Israeli settlement construction,” the White House said, and “agreed to continue those discussions and to work out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security.”

US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/ SAUL LOEB)
US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, February 15, 2017. (AFP/ SAUL LOEB)

The statement came at the end of a day in which Trump upended two decades of American foreign policy by not expressing a firm commitment to the two state-solution.

“I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like,” he said, showing enthusiasm toward Netanyahu’s call for a regional initiative that relied on Israel’s improving relationships with Arab countries.

In a briefing session with Israeli and international reporters after the meeting, Netanyahu said the Trump administration and Israel “want to reach agreement [on settlements]. We discussed it and will continue to discuss it in order to get to an agreement.”

He refused to say whether an agreement was already reached, or whether the sought-after arrangement could resemble the Bush-Sharon letter. In the 2004 document, the then-US president acknowledged the existence of large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank and said it would be “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Vowing to build some 6,000 recently announced housing units across settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Netanyahu also indicated that he would at least consider Trump’s request that he rein in settlement activity.

“If there’s a request to examine this issue from so friendly a president, I think it’s appropriate to make the effort,” Netanyahu said in the briefing, adding that while the US and Israel see “eye to eye on the rest of the issues, we must examine any request on this issue because it is in our interest.”

On the two-state solution, Netanyahu argued that his positions on Palestinian statehood had not changed since his seminal 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan university, in which he recognized, in principle, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized the Jewish state.

But, ostensibly following Washington’s lead, the prime minister repeatedly dodged questions during the briefing as to whether his Bar-Ilan speech was still valid or whether he still endorsed a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu did, however, say that Israel has no intention of annexing the West Bank and extending citizenship to the millions of Palestinians living there.

The prime minister also revealed that he had asked the president to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981. He did not elaborate on how Trump and his aides responded, but said they did not appear surprised.

In their meeting, according to the White House readout, Trump and Netanyahu also discussed the subject most on Netanyahu’s mind — the Iranian threat.

Both of them “agreed that the Iran nuclear deal is a terrible deal for the United States, Israel, and the world,” the statement said.

President Donald Trump, second from right, and wife Melania, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara, left, at the South Portico of the White House, Feb. 15, 2017. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump, second from right, and wife Melania, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara, left, at the South Portico of the White House, Feb. 15, 2017. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

“The President assured the Prime Minister that Iran must not, and will not, obtain nuclear weapons capability,” it added. They were also said to discuss the crisis in Syria, the fight against the Islamic State terrorist organization, and promoting Arab-Israeli ties.

The White House also said a “working group” would be formed to “focus on enabling the growth of the Palestinian economy,” long a priority of US foreign policy.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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