WASHINGTON - There was confusion in Israel Friday over the publication of President Donald Trump's first interview with Israeli media, in which he made his strongest statements yet on Israeli settlement building.
“They [settlements] don't help the process," he told the Israel Hayom newspaper, which on Friday published excerpts from the interview. “There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.”
Israelis say they are not sure what to expect out of the new American president when he meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington next week.
“Many people are having a tough time understanding Trump,” said Knesset insider Jeremy Man Saltan. “It is difficult to see how Trump can be the man to close the ultimate deal between Israel and the Palestinians if both Israel's coalition and opposition currently oppose his positions.”
Trump’s election welcomed
Trump's election win last November was welcomed by Israel's right wing.
“Trump's victory is an opportunity for Israel to immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state in the center of the country, which would hurt our security and just cause,” Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said at the time.
Little wonder he was hopeful. In May 2016, for example, Trump told Britain's Daily Mail that Israeli settlement building should "keep going" and "keep moving forward," which observers say was seen as a green light for Israel to continue expansion into the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
On Monday, Israel's Knesset passed a law that retroactively legalized thousands of housing units in more than a dozen settlements on 2,000 acres of Palestinian land, which Palestinians claim for a future state.
The White House did not comment on the new law. Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Wednesday that the issue would “obviously” be on the agenda for talks between Trump and Netanyahu next week. But on February 3, Spicer said the settlements were “not helpful.”
Previous U.S. leaders have called the settlements an “impediment” to peace. The United Nations Security Council in late December passed a resolution calling the settlements “a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle” to a peaceful, two-state solution.
The United States abstained from that vote, angering Netanyahu, who rejected what he called a “shameful anti-Israel resolution" and said Israel "will not abide by its terms.” He said he would re-evaluate ties with the U.N., and he ordered a review of the funding of U.N. institutions and the presence of U.N. representatives in Israel.
In his interview with Israel Hayom, Trump said the White House would continue to study the issue of settlements. “But, no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace,” he said.
News of the interview broke around noon Israeli time on Friday, said Israeli commentator Marc Schulman, and he called it a “small earthquake for the right wing.”
“They had been pressuring Netanyahu to make use of this historic opportunity of the [sympathetic] Trump presidency, and now they were hearing, in his words from a friendly newspaper, that there was limited land and increasing settlements are bad for reaching peace,” Schulman said.
Bezalel Smotrick, a powerful newcomer to right-wing politics in Israel, was particularly disturbed by the interview, according to Schulman, suggesting that coming so close to next week's meeting in Washington, it was a sign that Netanyahu might shift his own policy.
Wait and see
Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
“As a dealmaker, Trump should know that actions speak louder than words,” said Nir. “If he really wants to make a difference and make a deal, he should resist being manipulated by Israeli, Palestinian or other politicians, and pursue what he knows best serves America's national security interests: a two-state solution based on guidelines set by consecutive U.S. administrations.”
And he added, “This imperative should guide the president when he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu next week.”