Trump's Non-Policy on Israeli Settlements

In declining to take an “official position” on the issue, the president departs from a decades-old American posture.

Baz Ratner / Reuters

Four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Israeli government announced that it would build 2,500 new housing units in the West Bank. In another era—as in anytime before two weeks ago—this kind of announcement would have immediately drawn censure from the State Department and perhaps even the president. Instead, the White House said nothing. Palestinian officials, international observers, and some Israelis were dismayed. On the Israeli right, there was jubilation: “We’re going back to normal life in Judea and Samaria” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Emboldened by Trump’s recent signaling toward Israel, which has included a pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the appointment of David Friedman—a pro-settlement real-estate lawyer—to serve as his ambassador to the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to test the boundaries of this new dynamic. On Wednesday, the Israeli government announced plans for the construction of 3,000 new housing units in the West Bank and, on Thursday, Netanyahu declared that a new West Bank settlement would be established, the first since the early 1990s.

This time the White House did speak out. In an official statement delivered by White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Thursday, the administration offered the gentlest of critiques. “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” he said, “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” Spicer added that the president “has not taken an official position on settlement activity” and will seek to discuss it with Netanyahu when the two meet later this month.

While these remarks were widely interpreted as an official rebuke, that Trump wasn’t willing to declare an official position on settlements is a notable departure from some five decades of U.S. policy. Since the settlement enterprise began in earnest in the the 1970s, every president has declared American opposition to it. Back in December, when the United States controversially abstained from a vote on UN resolution that condemned Israeli settlements, former U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power started her speech ahead of the vote by quoting Ronald Reagan’s declaration that “the United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period.”

According to The Jerusalem Post, an unnamed Trump official had a more forceful response to Netanyahu’s announcement. “[W]e urge all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements,” the official told the paper. “The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward.” But given the significance of Netanyahu's recent declarations, these anonymous remarks don’t exactly convey urgency.

Given that this administration has both a penchant for mixed messages and a self-professed affection for making every issue a potential lever of negotiation, it’s difficult to know what Trump truly thinks about settlements. While the rest of the world waits to find out, yet another consequential American precedent has been scrapped.