On Thursday, the White House issued a statement gently urging Israel to stop expanding its settlements in Palestinian territories, saying 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" President Trump's goal of "peace throughout the Middle East region." Trump "has not taken an official position on settlement activity," added the statement, attributed to White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, but Trump looks forward to discussing the issue when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House on Feb. 15.
The statement was a surprise, since Trump has surrounded himself with pro-settlement advisers and was strongly critical of President Barack Obama's Israeli policy, including opposition to expansion into territory globally recognized as belonging to the Palestinians. It followed a meeting Trump had on Thursday morning with King Abdullah II of Jordan, a key U.S. ally with an enormous stake in the peace process in neighboring Israel, and Netanyahu's pledge on Thursday to build the first new settlement in the occupied West Bank in many years.
Also Thursday, The Jerusalem Post quoted an unidentified senior Trump administration official telling Netanyahu's government to cool it with the settlement construction spree lest it interfere with Trump's goals of negotiating Mideast peace. Israel has announced the construction of 5,500 new homes since Trump's inauguration, apparently viewing the change of government as a green light to expand into East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Still, "the White House thought the rebuke, as reported, went too far and issued Spicer's statement in an attempt to dial it back," The Washington Post reports, "while also giving itself breathing room as it develops a more comprehensive policy on the Middle East."