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'We'll continue to discuss that,' says Spicer mildly, after Israel announces 2,500 new West Bank homes

In break from Obama, White House keeps mum as Israel expands settlements

Trump press secretary also evasive on former president’s last-minute transfer of $221 million to Palestinians, says Trump will examine ‘all aspects of budget’

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON — Hours after Israel defied the international community by approving the construction of roughly 2,500 settlement homes in the West Bank, the nascent Trump administration declined to comment on the controversial move, marking a dramatic break from the policy of former President Barack Obama, who routinely castigated Israel for building in such areas.

Asked at Tuesday’s daily press briefing for a response to Israel’s announcement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer neither approved nor condemned the decision, saying that President Donald Trump would discuss the matter when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Washington next month.

“We’re going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and we’ll continue to discuss that,” he said. “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States, he wants to grow closer with Israel, to make sure that it gets the full respect that it deserves in the Middle East.”

The settlement announcement came two days after Trump and Netanyahu had their first phone call since the president assumed power, in which they discussed the Iranian threat and Mideast peace process. Neither the readouts from the White House or Prime Minister’s Office addressed the settlement issue.

Earlier Tuesday, Israel approved the large-scale expansion of West Bank settlements, with 2,500 new homes to be built, most of them inside what Israel considers the principle blocs it expects to retain under a peace deal in exchange for mutually agreed upon land swaps. The exact location and scope of those blocs, however, have never been agreed upon by Israelis and Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at the Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The decision also came two days after a Jerusalem planning committee approved 566 housing units in East Jerusalem, a move that was delayed by former president Obama’s strong objections, but came shortly after the Sunday phone conversation between Trump and Netanyahu.

“We’re building — and will continue to build,” Netanyahu said Tuesday after the new building plans were announced by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, marking a policy shift to coincide with Trump’s arrival.

Spicer was equally evasive when asked if Trump intended to thwart the transfer of $221 million to the Palestinians ordered by Barack Obama on the final day of his presidency.

“I think when it comes to how US taxpayers money is spent in general, whether it is overseas or here at home, you have seen through the hiring freeze and other actions that he’s going to take that he is very concerned about how taxpayer money is spent, whether it is sent overseas, and what we get for it in terms of the relationship or our support for a democracy or aid for another country for their defenses,” Spicer said.

The West Bank settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah on November 27, 2012. (Oren Nahshon/FLASH90)
The West Bank settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah on November 27, 2012. (Oren Nahshon/FLASH90)

“But [Trump’s] going to be examining all aspects of the budget and how we look at all money because I think there is a newfound respect for how the American people’s tax dollars are spent in this administration,” Spicer added.

Palestinians were swift to condemn the construction projects. “Once again, the Israeli government has proved that it is more committed to land theft and colonialism than to the two-state solution and the requirements for peace and stability,” said PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi.

The announcement was also a rejoinder to the United Nations, a month after the Security Council, in a resolution on which Obama declined to impose a veto, condemned settlements as “having no legal validity” and constituting “a flagrant violation of international law.”

Samantha Power, center, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, votes to abstain during a UN Security Council vote on condemning Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 at United Nations Headquarters. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)
Samantha Power, center, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, votes to abstain during a UN Security Council vote on condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 at United Nations Headquarters. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

The Obama administration abstained on the measure, effectively allowing it to pass. In his waning weeks as president, Obama defended his decision by citing the settlement enterprise as damaging the viability of a two-state future for the parties.

The goal of advancing the resolution, Obama said last Wednesday, was “to simply say that the settlements, the growth of the settlements, are creating a reality on the ground that increasingly will make a two-state solution impossible.”

In a comprehensive speech on the conflict before stepping down, in which he excoriated settlement construction as an obstacle to peace, former secretary of state John Kerry warned Israel the “status quo is leading toward one state and perpetual occupation.”

But Trump has signaled he will take another approach to the issue as president, including by nominating his long-time friend and bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, an outspoken supporter and financial donor to West Bank settlements, to serve as his ambassador to Israel.

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