Israeli Group Brushes Off Trump Warning

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The group representing Israeli settlers on Friday brushed off a White House statement warning Israel about constructing new settlements in West Bank territory that Palestinians claim for their future state, saying instead that it looks forward to "working closely with our friends" in the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump has been perceived as sympathetic to the settlements, an issue at the heart of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that was a frequent source of friction between his predecessor, Barack Obama, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli nationalists now believe they have an ally in the White House, and have made no secret they will push for more settlements in the West Bank.

But on Thursday, the White House said that the administration doesn'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."

The U.S. statement came just several hours after Netanyahu vowed to establish the first new West Bank settlement in over two decades "as soon as possible," promising to make up for a court-ordered demolition of an illegal settlement outpost. Israeli security forces dismantled Amona earlier in the day amid clashes between police and dozens of hard-line settlers who had barricaded themselves inside a synagogue.

Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy of the Yesha settlers' council, said his 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.

The settler movement is a potent political force in Israel, and Netanyahu's narrow nationalist coalition government is dominated by settlers and their supporters.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem along with the Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for their state. The Palestinians and much of the international community consider all Israeli settlements illegal and view them as an obstacle to reaching a two state solution to the conflict.

Israeli nationalists, including Netanyahu, defend the settlements on both security and religious grounds. They say east Jerusalem, home to key holy sites sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is an eternal part of Israel's capital and not up for negotiation.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely issued a statement saying the "government was elected in order to realize the right of the people of Israel to build in all parts of the country" and that must be respected.

If the White House concedes that settlements are not an obstacle to peace, then "it must be concluded that that expanding construction is not a problem," she said.

For decades, U.S. presidents have joined the international community in condemning the settlements as obstacles to the peace process. In December, the Obama administration allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the settlements as a "flagrant violation" of international law. In a farewell speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also harshly criticized the settlements.

Trump has said he wants to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but has given no indication of how he plans to accomplish it. His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, the cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy for decades, and he has surrounded himself with advisers with deep ties to the settlement movement.

A day before the evacuation of the Amona outpost, Netanyahu approved 3,000 homes in West Bank settlements in addition to earlier approvals of 2,500 homes in the West Bank and 560 in east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu's government had unsuccessfully tried to block the evacuation of Amona. But Israel's Supreme Court rejected all appeals after determining the outpost was built illegally two decades ago on private Palestinian land.

The White House said on Thursday that the Trump administration hasn't taken an official position on settlements and the president looks forward to continued discussions on the issue, including when he meets with Netanyahu at the White House on Feb. 15.

(KA)