US President Donald Trump has struck a tougher line with Israel, warning that building new settlements or expanding existing ones “may not be helpful” to efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“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,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement on Thursday.
The statement was a departure from Trump’s full-throated defense of the Israeli settlement constructions on the occupied Palestinian territories, which are considered illegal under international law.
Before taking office, Trump slammed the administration of former president Barack Obama for not vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
Trump’s first foreign call as president was to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to visit the White House on February 15.
“The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month,” Spicer said.
Since Trump took the oath of office on January 20, Israel has approved a slew of new settlements, in a move that some US officials said would further jeopardize the prospect of a “two-state solution.”
On Tuesday, Israel announced plans for 3,000 new settler units in the occupied West Bank, the fourth such announcement in the less than two weeks.
The Obama administration had steadily grown more frustrated with Israeli settlement constructions, culminating in a decision in December to abstain, and not veto, Security Council Resolution 2334, which demanded Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The resolution also stated that settlement building by Israel has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.”
Trump was quick to denounce the UN measure, and vowed to be a better partner for Israel than Obama, whom he characterized as weak on the Middle East ally.
“As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region,” Spicer said.
The statement came hours after Netanyahu vowed to establish a new settlement in the West Bank “as soon as possible,” following the court-ordered demolition of the Amona outpost.
Over half a million Israelis live in more than 230 illegal settlements built since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem al-Quds.
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