WASHINGTON • The White House has gently warned Israel that new or expanded settlements in the West Bank "may not be helpful" in achieving a Middle East peace, while insisting it has no "official position on settlement activity".
Although previous US administrations have characterised Israel's settlement construction as an obstacle to the peace process, the latest statement appears to mark a softening of the American position.
In fact, Israeli officials yesterday welcomed the statement, seeing it as condoning construction in existing settler blocs rather than a signal to rein in building.
The statement, issued by press secretary Sean Spicer, said that although the administration does not believe settlements are "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".
"The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years," Mr Spicer's statement said, a reference to President Donald Trump's insistence that a return to the Middle East negotiating table is a goal he hopes to achieve.
While the statement carefully parsed its words, it marked a step away from what some Trump officials have said in favour of settlements.
Mr Trump's first foreign call as President was to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he has been sharply critical of former president Barack Obama, whom he characterised as weak on Israel.
"Netanyahu will be happy," a senior Israeli diplomat said in a text message. "Pretty 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."
The Trump administration has also pulled back somewhat on a pledge to quickly move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which the Palestinians also claim as their capital. Middle Eastern diplomats in contact with the administration have said they believe it will not take that step immediately, perhaps waiting at least until June, when an Obama-issued waiver of a congressional mandate to make the move expires.
WASHINGTON POST, BLOOMBERG, REUTERS