WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump reportedly asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year whether he seriously cared about making peace with the Palestinians.
According to Axios, the mercurial American president went off script in a phone call between the two leaders. The report said the call came just after the Israeli press reported that the Israeli premier was planning to approve settlement construction projects to satisfy his right-wing base.
“Trump thought Bibi was unnecessarily angering the Palestinians,” the news site reported, using Netanyahu’s nickname, and citing three sources familiar with the call. “So, in the course of a longer conversation that was mostly friendly and complimentary, he bluntly asked Bibi whether or not he genuinely wants peace.”
The report did not detail Netanyahu’s response to that question.
When asked about the tete-a-tete, the White House indicated that the president could deploy a level of assertion while maintaining strong ties with allied governments.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told Axios that Trump “has great relationships with a number of foreign leaders but that doesn’t mean he can’t be aggressive when it comes to negotiating what’s best for America.” She did not respond directly to the contents of the discussion.
Since assuming the presidency, Trump has made forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal a major priority. He assembled a diplomatic team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt, to lead those efforts. That push has taken a downward turn, however, since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced plans to move the US embassy there.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, along with other PA officials, has refused to meet with members of the Trump administration and discredited their capacity to act as honest mediators in any potential peace talks.
In the past, Trump has questioned the sagacity of the settlement enterprise and whether Israel truly wants peace with the Palestinians.
“The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements,” he told the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israeli daily Israel Hayom last year.
He also publicly requested that Netanyahu “hold back on settlements” when the prime minister visited the White House in February 2017.