WASHINGTON - The White House expressed its "concerns" with settlement construction after talks with senior Israeli officials in Washington ended Thursday night with a joint statement showing the two governments unable to agree on a settlement policy that could pave the way to peace talks resuming.
As the Israelis left Washington to return home, the White House released a statement saying they had discussed "concrete, near-term measures to improve the overall climate" to improve prospects for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Among the topics were ways to improve the reliability of water and electricity in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the most closely watched part of talks between the Trump administration and the Israeli government concerned settlement activity. In two sentences, the statement laid out positions that made it clear that issue was unresolved.
"The United States delegation reiterated President Donald Trump's concerns regarding settlement activity in the context of moving towards a peace agreement," it said. "The Israeli delegation made clear that Israel's intent going forward is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes those concerns into consideration."
The wording is politically useful to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under unrelenting pressure from his right-wing coalition to forge ahead expanding settlements even though it would anger Palestinians whose aspirations to create their own nation on the land would be blocked.
The election of Trump caused jubilation among many settlers who predicted they would have carte blanche under an administration more sympathetic to them than the Obama administration, which issued statements sharply critical of every new settlement announcement.
The White House expression of concern over settlements allows Netanyahu to push back against the settlers, arguing that any expansion would alienate Israel's closest ally. Ironically, the statement was issued on the day Congress confirmed the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. The new U.S. envoy was once Trump's bankruptcy lawyer, and is known as a major supporter of Israeli settlements and an opponent of Palestinian statehood.
The joint statement followed four days of intensive negotiations between the Trump administration, Israel's ambassador to the United States and a visiting Israeli delegation. Trump's team, led by aide Jason Greenblatt, surprised Israel by insisting on a temporary freeze on West Bank settlements as a starting point for negotiations with Palestinians, two people familiar with the discussions said Thursday.
Trump plans a push toward a peace settlement, an elusive goal of many past U.S. presidents. The Trump effort is focused on Arab states that support the Palestinian cause, applying pressure on Palestinian leadership in the West Bank to make a deal. Trump has said the deal may not include a separate, sovereign Palestinian state as sought by the past three U.S. presidents.
To get talks started, he is pushing Israel to make a good-faith gesture on settlements that is similar in many ways to one former president Barack Obama tried in his first year in office in 2009.
Trump publicly endorsed a hiatus on settlement building during Netanyahu's visit to the White House last month. But Israeli officials have argued that Netanyahu has limited room to maneuver on the settlement issue because of political pressure from the right.
Israeli media reported Thursday that the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government were at odds over the scope and geographical limits of Israeli construction in the settlements. Israeli officials denied the reports, but many in Israel gave them great credence.
Greenblatt, who holds the title of international negotiator, met this week with Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador, and Netanyahu advisers Yoav Horowitz and Jonatan Schechter.
Israel's Channel Two television reported that the Trump administration has demanded Israel not build outside the major settlement blocs and proposed placing a yearly cap on the volume of other construction projects.
Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Trump's demand that Netanyahu declare a construction freeze was a precondition for having Saudi Arabia join a regional peace process. Officials said Trump believes in enlisting the Saudis to play a role in a regional process and thinks that they will bring other moderate Arab states to the table as well.
For Netanyahu, agreeing to such a moratorium could threaten the stability of his government.
Already, his agriculture minister, Uri Ariel, from the ultra-right-wing Jewish Home party, said in an interview to Israel Army Radio on Thursday that his party could not continue being part of the government under what it sees as an open-ended limitation. "If a construction moratorium gains a foothold, tomorrow it will apply to the blocs too," he said.
Jacob Dayan, a former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, said he believed that the Trump administration was attempting to base its policy on that of George W. Bush, allowing Israel to build in the settlement blocs but not more than that.
Trump is not demanding a blanket ban, but it is not clear where he draws the line.
Obama requested a complete moratorium to get talks started, something that Netanyahu agreed to for a limited time but which subsequently poisoned his relationship with Obama.