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Donald Trump tells Israel to stop building settlements

The Trump administration has told Israel to stop constructing new settlements - or expanding others - because it "may not help" achieve peace with Palestinians.

President Donald Trump has offered his firm support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a number of occasions, signalling he could be more amenable towards the process of settlement building than his predecessor Barack Obama, who repeatedly condemned their construction.

Mr Trump has also characterised Mr Obama actions towards Israel as weak and accusing him of treating the country with "disdain."

However, it appears the White House were taken by surprise by the speed with which plans for thousands of new settler homes - construction of which is condemned by much of the international community - were put in place by Israeli authorities.

In the last two weeks 5,500 new homes have been approved for construction in the West Bank, land that the Palestinians want as part of any future state.

It is the largest expansion of construction since US-led peace talks broke down in April 2014.

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“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” the White House statement reads.

“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 that goal.”

“As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region,” the statement adds.

Perhaps in a nod to the visit of Mr Netanyahu to Washington on 15 February, the White House statement adds that “the Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity" and that the administration "looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”

The carefully-worded statement stepped back from previous statements by Trump officials on settlements, including Mr Trump's pick as ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The statement was reportedly issued after a report in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday that quoted an unnamed US official as saying that Mr Netanyahu's government should stop the spree of construction in case it interferes with Mr Trump's plans to work towards peace. The White House seemingly thought the quotes, as reported, went too far and looked to dial down the tone of the debate.

Mr Trump has a number of advisors who see Israeli security as a major concern, including Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and Mr Friedman. But it is not the first time since his inauguration that Mr Trump's administration has appeared to step back and previous rhetoric. A pledge to quickly move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - which the Palestinians also claim as their capital - has seemingly been softened with progress on a potential move not coming until at least June according to some reports.

In the first Israeli reaction to the statement, Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, said it was too early to tell how it would affect future building.

“It's still too early to tell ... I would not categorise this as a U-turn by the US administration but the issue is clearly on their agenda ... the issue will be discussed when the prime minister (Netanyahu) meets the president in Washington,” Danon told Israel Radio.

“We will not always agree on everything,” he added.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone with Mr Netanyahu on Thursday, the State Department said. It did not say whether they discussed the White House statement.

The group representing Israeli settlers brushed off the White House statement saying that it looks forward to "working closely with our friends" in the Trump administration.

Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlers' council, told teh Associated Press that group "thanks the White House for asserting that our communities were never an impediment to peace."

Using the biblical name for the West Bank he said "nothing is more natural and morally just than Jews building in Judea."

"We look forward to working closely with our friends in the new Trump administration to build a brighter future all," he added.

In an interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes, former President Obama discussed his decision to abstain from the United Nations vote to condemn the construction of Israeli settlements.

"Because of our investment in the region, and because we care so deeply about Israel, I think [the US] has a legitimate interest in saying to a friend, 'This is a problem,'" he explained. "It would have long-term consequences for peace and security in the region, and the United States."

Independent News Service

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