White House stays mum on latest Israeli settlement expansion plans

World Today

Heavy machinery work in a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Trump administration declined Tuesday to take a position on Israel’s latest plan to expand Jewish settlements on land claimed by the Palestinians, breaking with past White House criticism of such construction but leaving its own policy unclear.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer dodged a reporter’s question Tuesday on whether the administration supports the Israeli government’s decision to proceed with the construction of 2,500 housing units in the West Bank. Spicer said the administration was still forming its foreign policy team and that President Donald Trump would discuss settlements and other matters when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits next month.

The president “has asked his team to get together,” Spicer 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 and that’s what he’s going to do. We’re going to have a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. We’ll continue to discuss that.”

Trump has pledged to improve U.S.-Israel relations that were often strained over the settlement issue during the Obama administration, and Spicer said Trump remains committed to that goal.

Although Israel and its supporters were likely to see Spicer’s non-answer to the question as a welcome relief from the harsh criticism of settlements leveled by the Obama administration, U.S. officials said the response was not intended as a signal of any particular shift in policy. Instead, they said it reflected the Trump administration’s desire on only its second full working day to gets its full foreign policy team in place before making a judgment.

Even so, the lack of criticism of a major Israeli settlement announcement is a departure from past administrations of both parties. Every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has taken the position that settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which the Palestinians claim for a future state, are “illegitimate” under international law. That opinion is shared by much of the rest of the international community, with many countries flatly calling the settlements “illegal.”

Past U.S. administrations from their earliest days in office have urged both Israel and the Palestinians not to take unilateral actions that could prejudge the outcome of negotiations to end their long-running conflict.

Story by The Associated Press