Donald Trump has indicated for months now that he plans to veer away from decades of bipartisan US policy toward Israel by moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and giving Israel tacit (if not explicit) permission to build more settlement housing in the occupied territories.
But statements this week from the Trump administration have instead presented a muddled policy that is leaving observers in Jerusalem and Washington uncertain about the president’s true position — and what he really thinks about Israel's current plans to expand its presence in the West Bank.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement announcing that 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 in achieving that goal.”
That statement came in the wake of a report from the Jerusalem Post quoting an unnamed White House official urging “all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions ... including settlement announcements,” because the administration is “[v]ery interested in reaching a deal that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
It was the first time the Trump administration had weighed in on the explosion of promised settlement expansions since Trump took office: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has announced some 5,500 new housing units in the territories since January 20, and appeared poised to create an entirely new settlement as compensation to settlers who were recently evacuated from the illegal Amona settlement.
And the promise to immediately move the embassy to Jerusalem — a campaign promise often made by candidates and never fulfilled — has yet to manifest.
This has created confusion on all sides: Has Trump suddenly changed his position after all?
Nobody’s sure exactly what is going on
“It looks like the Trump administration is still saying that the basic U.S. policy toward Middle East peace hasn’t changed,” Daniel Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration, told the Washington Post.
Shapiro also told the Post that White House statements made it seem like the administration was interested in peace negotiations, and that that was why it was concerned about the recent announcements of substantial settlement expansion.
But not everyone was nearly as sure as Shapiro. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, told Israel Radio, “It’s still too early to tell. I would not categorize this as a U-turn by the US administration.”
Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg told me that if the Trump administration thinks settlements are “not an impediment to peace,” then that “couldn’t be a more explicit change to US policy.” That’s because every US administration since the Johnson administration has called settlements an obstacle to peace — or even illegal.
“It is clearly stated that this is altering previous policy,” said Gorenberg. “This is not a return to the Obama policy; it is not a return to bipartisan American policy on settlements. This is something new.”
One unnamed senior Israeli diplomat texted Reuters correspondent Luke Baker that "Netanyahu will be happy” because he now has "[p]retty much carte blanche to build as much as we want in existing settlements as long as we don't enlarge their physical acreage. No problem there."
Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, saw the phrasing as a sure sign that the Trump administration believes “the continuation of building does not harm the peace process.”
“What this statement does is water down the positions of the last four administrations,” said Aaron David Miller, who served in both the Bush and Clinton administrations and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
But, he said, these recent Trump administration statements send Israel a “flashing yellow light,” when what the Israelis had expected was a green light.
It’s unclear what’s happening behind the scenes of the administration.
Back in November the administration began floating their position on settlements. As I wrote at the time, Jason Greenblatt, then the Trump transition team’s position person on Israel, told Israeli Army Radio, “It is certainly not Mr. Trump’s view that settlement activities should be condemned and that it is an obstacle for peace, because it is not an obstacle for peace.” That kind of language was remarkable, and a departure from a position held over decades of US foreign policy in the region.
Almost immediately, ministers in Netanyahu’s right-wing government began celebrating the dawn of a new era of settlement growth.
It’s possible the Trump administration is annoyed by just how quickly and aggressively Netanyahu has moved without consulting with the White House. It’s also possible that new members of Trump’s Cabinet are weighing in.
After all, newly confirmed Defense Secretary James Mattis was on the record in 2013 expressing concern about the growth of settlements. As Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) reported in December, Mattis had worried aloud, “If I’m Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid.”
Donald Trump has himself had various evolutions of thinking on the peace process. As a candidate, he at first said he would be “neutral” on the issue, a word rarely used in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly in an election year.
Spice’s statement indicated that the president has not finalized his position on policy going forward and will consult with Netanyahu when the Israeli leader arrives in Washington for a face-to-face conversation on February 15.
Meanwhile, the region continues to parse the statements coming from the White House like they’re Talmudic texts.