WASHINGTON — The State Department gently chided Israel on Thursday for moving forward with plans to build roughly 2,500 new settlement homes in the West Bank, including housing units for the first new settlement in 25 years.
Asked about Israel’s plans for building the new housing units in the contested area, spokesperson Heather Nauert made a reference to US President Donald Trump’s February request to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a bit.”
“President Trump has talked about this consistently, and he has said, in his opinion, unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance the peace process,” she told reporters during a press briefing Thursday. “He’s been pretty clear about that. It doesn’t help the prospect for peace.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is important to this administration, and they will keep promoting [peace],” she said.
Plans to begin work on the first new Israeli West Bank settlement in 25 years cleared the final planning hurdle Wednesday, along with a program to build 2,000 housing units throughout the West Bank.
These projects, approved by the Civil Administration’s High Planning Committee, include 102 housing units for Amichai, the new settlement to be built for residents of the illegal Amona outpost, which was evacuated in February in line with court orders because it was built on private Palestinian land.
The settlement — which will be located near the settlements of Shiloh and Eli, north of Ramallah — will be the first of its kind to be constructed since the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace accords signed in 1993.
Since assuming office, Trump has made clear his intent to broker a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, which has included already hosting both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House and visiting the region.
While his administration has appeared to be more tolerant of Israeli settlement activity, Trump has made clear that he finds such building to be detrimental to reaching an accord.
Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer put out a statement in February that said settlements are not “an impediment to peace,” but at the same time do not “help to advance peace.”
Trump, for his part, publicly asked Netanyahu during a joint press conference at the White House in February to refrain from building more settlements in the West Bank.
During his trip last month to Israel and the West Bank, however, Trump did not bring up the issue of settlements publicly.
After Israel’s security cabinet approved plans to establish the new Amichai settlement in March, Netanyahu announced his pledge to curb future settlement construction.
“This is a very friendly administration and we need to be considerate of the president’s requests,” he said when announcing the move.
The White House welcomed that promise.
“The Israeli government has made clear that going forward, its intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes the President’s concerns into consideration,” a White House spokesman told The Times of Israel at the time.
Nauert also said Thursday she could not confirm reports that Abbas was demanding a full Israeli settlement freeze to resume peace talks.
“I’m not aware of any diplomatic conversations about that very topic,” she said.
Hours later on Thursday, a senior aide to Abbas told Bloomberg news that the Palestinian leader was prepared to drop that demand.
“We have not made the settlements an upfront issue this time,” said Mohammad Mustafa, Abbas’s senior economic adviser who is also a close confidant. “We think it’s better for all of us right now to focus on giving this new administration a chance to deliver.”