Nearly half a year into his presidency, Donald Trump’s administration has yet to settle on a coherent policy vis-à-vis Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria, a hot-button issue that has remained one of the most visible points of contention between Israel and successive American administrations.
Will the Trump White House be hostile towards any and all construction for Jews in Judea and Samaria, likes his predecessor, Barack Obama; or will his administration adopt a more nuanced view, like that of President George Walker Bush? Or will Trump overturn decades of American foreign policy and embrace the expansion of Jewish communities in the historic heart of the Jewish homeland?
Since his inauguration in January, President Trump has given mixed signals towards Israeli building in Judea and Samaria. His administration, which won the backing of many on the Israeli right, refused to condemn recent housing permits issued by Israel for projects in Judea and Samaria, and even declined to condemn the establishment of the first new state-sanctioned community in Judea and Samaria in a quarter century.
On the other hand, however, the Trump administration has also come out against large-scale construction in the Israeli capital, Jerusalem, and Trump himself stated publicly that he would like to see Israel “restrain” construction in Judea and Samaria. In June, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said explicitly that President Trump views the “settlements as something that does not help the peace process.”
While supporters of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria could point to the selection of David Friedman, a noted settlement backer, as America’s Ambassador to Israel, some criticized the Trump administration for tapping Kris Bauman, an ex-USAF officer with a history of conciliatory positions towards the Hamas terror group as chief NSC advisor on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The apparent dissonance among administration officials regarding US policy towards Israel and Judea and Samaria could blamed on the size of presidential administrations, which now include some 4,000 employees, almost inevitably leading to disagreements within any administration.
A Tuesday press briefing by the State Department, however, suggests that the contradictory signals emanating from the administration is a reflection not of chaos among a ‘team of rivals’ pushing competing visions, but the lack of a clear decision on the matter by the White House.
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert fielded questions from reporters, including two regarding Israel.
In a follow-up to a question posed by the Associated Press last week, one reporter asked Nauert how the Trump administration defined ‘restrained’ Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria versus ‘unrestrained’.
“Last week, AP asked a question about the difference between restrained and unrestrained settlements, and the AP reporter specifically asked about whether the location of the settlement differentiated between restrained, which would be somewhat acceptable, versus unstrained, unacceptable. So my question is you said you’d follow up on that.”
“Do you believe that settlements on the Palestinian side of the barrier, that would be unrestrained, and on its – and within the settlement blocs that would be restrained? Or how do you differentiate in terms of location?”
American officials have addressed that very question for past quarter century, distinguishing between the establishment new settlements and growth in existing towns, expansion of town boundaries versus building within already defined zoning planes, and construction inside ‘consensus’ settlement blocs versus construction in towns outside of the major blocs.
Different administrations have had different answers regarding what they define as restrained versus unrestrained. At present, however, the Trump administration appears to remain unsettled on the issue.
In her response, Nauert acknowledged that the White House had yet to settle on a comprehensive policy for building in Judea and Samaria.
“I think that’s something that is still under review. As you know, Mr. Greenblatt in the region, Mr. Kushner has made many trips there. And so I’m just going to defer to them on that issue for right now.”
While the president himself has in all likelihood not dwelled on the nuances of policy in Judea and Samaria, his advisers and administration officials probably have – after all, it has a significant issue in America’s relationship with one of its most prominent allies for the past half a century.
During Tuesday’s briefing, Nauert also defended Ambassador David Friedman’s participation in talks between US officials and representatives of the Palestinian Authority in a meeting Tuesday evening in Jerusalem, citing his “expertise” in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“The fact that our U.S. ambassador would be included in this meeting and that the Palestinians, as I understand it, would welcome him into this meeting shows a step forward in terms of our cooperation.
“We’re very pleased to have the ambassador’s expertise in this. And I think it raises the level and indicates just how important it is for this administration to try to come to some sort of peace agreement. As I’ve said many times before and I’ll just throw this out one more time we know that that process is not going to be easy.”
“I see it as a positive thing that the ambassador is there.”