Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday he would present “responsible policies” in talks with US President Donald Trump, signalling to the Israeli far-right to curb its territorial demands in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu leaves for Washington on Monday and will see Trump at the White House on Wednesday for their first meeting since the Republican’s inauguration last month, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and policy towards Iran on the agenda.
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During his 2016 election campaign, Trump indicated his presidency would be a boon for Israel and tough on Palestinians, after an acrimonious relationship between his predecessor Barack Obama and Netanyahu that included clashes over settlement building and Iran’s nuclear programme. Trump talked of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, naming an ambassador who backs Israeli settlement on occupied land which Palestinians seek for a state and exerting no pressure on Israel for peace negotiations, which collapsed in 2014.
But he has since toned down his pro-Israel bravado ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, a change that could help the prime minister keep in check ultra-nationalist coalition partners calling on him to push a more militant agenda.
“To believe there are no restrictions now would be a mistake,” Israel Radio quoted Netanyahu as telling members of his Likud party with respect to settlement expansion now that Trump is in office. On the eve of Netanyahu’s departure for Washington, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, publicly cautioned him not to mention the words “two-state solution” in talks with Trump.
Bennett’s party is also promoting the annexation of parts of the West Bank. Netanyahu has stopped short of endorsing those positions – steps that would put Israel at odds with long-standing U.S. and European policies – while speaking of building in major settlement blocs Israel intends to keep in any future peace deal.
In public remarks to his cabinet on Sunday, he seemed to urge the far-right to tone down its expectations. “I understand there’s great excitement about this meeting (with Trump),” he said. “But … my primary concern is Israel’s security (and) strengthening our solid alliance with the United States.”
That, Netanyahu said, “requires responsible policies, policies that are given careful consideration – and that’s how I intend to act.” He did not elaborate. His comments appeared to echo remarks Trump made in an interview published on Friday in the pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily Israel Hayom. Calling on Israel “to be reasonable with respect to peace”, he said settlements “don’t help the process”.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu approved the construction of some 6,000 settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, drawing Palestinian and international condemnation which the Trump administration did not join. However, Trump’s remarks in the Israeli newspaper interview appeared to take a tougher line toward Israeli settlement policy.