Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday met with US President Donald Trump’s peace envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt, following reports earlier in the day that the US would soon announce a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Also present at the meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office were US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, the PMO said in a statement.
Earlier Wednesday, the pan-Arabic Al-Hayat daily reported that the US intends to facilitate talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which Trump will “soon” be calling for.
According to the report, the thorny final status issues will be negotiated separately from the “open negotiations” Trump is seeking. These include Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, water and security.
On Tuesday, Greenblatt, Friedman and US Consul General Donald Blum met in Jerusalem with a Palestinian team, which included chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj and the head of the Palestinian Investment Fund, Mohammed Mustafa.
Settlements have long been one of the thorniest issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the Palestinians and much of the international community saying that their expansion threatens the territorial continuity of a future Palestinian state.
Israel on Wednesday denied that it had agreed to a slowdown in settlement construction as part of any future peace talks.
The denial came after the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat quoted Jason Greenblatt — US President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — telling a senior Palestinian official on Tuesday that Israel had agreed to “slow down” settlement construction during formal negotiations between Palestinians and Israel, which Trump will “soon” be calling for.
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was due to meet with Greenblatt Wednesday, denied the report, saying, “There is no such commitment” to freeze settlement building.
According to the report, the US intends to facilitate “open negotiations” between the two sides, in which the thorny final status issues will be negotiated separately. These include Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, water and security.
Agreement reached on any of these issues would be “immediately announced” in order to create a “positive atmosphere.”
On March 9, 2010, then-US vice president Joe Biden started a visit to Israel by asserting the administration’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
A few hours later, when it emerged that Israel had approved 1,600 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, he denounced “the substance and timing of the announcement,” fuming that it “runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.” The next day, Biden doubled down: “At the request of President [Barack] Obama, I condemn it immediately and unequivocally.”
The crisis continued to grew over the next few days, with Israel’s ambassador in Washington being summoned to the State Department for a dressing down, secretary of state Hillary Clinton telephoning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convey Obama’s anger, and the president’s chief of staff terming the dispute “a pimple on the ass of US-Israel friendship.”
To be sure, Trump in February asked Netanyahu to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” And White House and State Department spokespeople routinely reiterate the administration’s view that “unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance the peace process.”
And yet, whereas in the recent past, settlements were considered by many as the most important of all core issues, today they have been relegated to one of several bitterly disputed issues that need to be addressed if progress is to be made toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When Obama in his first year in office sought to restart peace talks, he pressured Israel into a nine-month settlement freeze. This inevitably turned it into a Palestinian precondition for entering negotiations with Israel — since the Palestinians cannot ask for less than the White House — and thus in many respects crowned it the king of all core issues, the key to unlocking the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.
And there it remained for a while even after Trump took office. Having donated $10,000 to Beit El and having tapped David Friedman, an outspoken advocate for the settlement movement, as his ambassador to Israel, it seemed that the new president’s approach to Israel’s presence in the West Bank would be fundamentally different than that of all his recent predecessors. Some settlers and their political advocates hailed him as a veritable messiah, whose arrival heralded an unprecedented building boom.
That has not happened, but while Trump asked Israel to rein in settlement expansion, he has not castigated existing settlements as an obstacle to peace. In a sharp contrast to the previous administration, the current White House appears to understand Netanyahu’s political predicament — as hawkish members of his coalition demand more settlement construction — and may even empathize with the settlers’ need for natural growth.
Rather, the fixation on settlements has been superseded by a focus on a large portfolio of issues that need to be addressed in Trump’s bid for an accord he claims may “not be as difficult as people have thought.” To Ramallah’s great chagrin, those issues include incitement to violence and the Palestinian Authority’s payments to incarcerated terrorists and their families.
The Europeans have not adopted Trump’s more tolerant stance on settlement, still adhering to their traditional opposition to any Israeli building outside the Green Line. However, their formulaic responses to Israeli announcements of settlement expansions appear to have softened.