US President Donald Trump does not believe settlements help the peace process and does not consider settlements “a good thing for peace,” he told an Israeli newspaper Friday, in his most direct comments on the matter since his inauguration.
In an interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper — his first with the Israeli media since being sworn in as president on January 20 — Trump sounded extremely warmly disposed toward Israel, but was plainly critical of the settlement enterprise. His remarks were initially published in Hebrew, but later an English version was posted.
Settlements, Trump said, “don’t help the 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.”
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.
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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
In the interview, conducted ahead of Netanyahu’s February 15 visit to Washington, Trump said he looked forward to the White House meeting the prime minister. “We’ve always had good chemistry, and he is a good man,” said Trump of Netanyahu. “He wants to do the right thing for Israel. He would like peace; I believe that he wants peace and wants to have it badly. I have always liked him.”
His administration, Trump promised, would not be hostile to Israel. “I don’t want to condemn Israel. Israel has had a long history of condemnation and difficulty… I understand Israel very well, and I respect Israel a lot, and they have been through a lot. I would like to see peace and beyond that. And I think that peace for Israel would be a good thing for the Israeli people, not just a good thing, a great thing.”
Regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the president said his vision was for a peace deal for the entire Middle East, not one limited solely to the two sides. To that end, he said, he wanted both parties to behave in a reasonable manner.
“Well, I want Israel to be reasonable with respect to peace. I want to see peace happen. It should happen. After all these years,” he said. “Maybe there is even a chance for a bigger peace than just Israel and the Palestinians. I would like to see a level of reasonableness of both parties, and I think we have a good chance of doing that.”
Pressed on his campaign pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, 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.”
Trump said that although many people think a peace deal is impossible, including many clever people around him, he believes an peace agreement is both possible and necessary. The Palestinians, he said, would have to make concessions in any peace deal. “Yeah. They do. Absolutely,” he said. “It has to be good for everybody. No deal is good if it is not good for everybody, and we are in that process, and we will see what happens… So many people think it cannot be made. I have very smart people that … say a deal can’t be made. I disagree with them. I think a deal should be made, and it can be made.”
The president also reiterated his criticism of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by Barack Obama, with whom Netanyahu had a notoriously frosty relationship.
As a businessman, Trump said, he knows the difference between a good deal and a bad deal, but the nuclear accord was beyond his comprehension.
“The deal with Iran was a disaster for Israel. Inconceivable that it was made. It was poorly negotiated and executed,” Trump said. “You know, as a deal person, I understand all sides of deals. I understand good deals and bad deals, but this deal is not even comprehensible. Beyond comprehension. And you see the way Iran has reacted; unlike reacting as they should, which is being thankful for President Obama for making such a deal, which was so much to their advantage. They felt emboldened even before he left office. It is too bad a deal like that was made.”
Israel Hayom is owned by Sheldon Adelson, an American Jewish businessman with strong ties to Netanyahu and the Republican Party. On Thursday, Adelson and his Israeli-born wife Miriam were guests of the president for dinner at the White House.
Adelson did not commit to a presidential candidate until May 2016, when he endorsed Trump at a time when it was clear the businessman would be the Republican nominee.
Adelson subsequently donated millions to Trump’s election campaign and to his inauguration; the Adelsons were on the dais for Trump’s inaugural oath-taking, a rare honor for campaign funders.