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Washington talks end without agreement on Israeli settlements

Published: Updated:

The Trump administration reiterated its concerns about Israeli settlement activity, the two sides said on Thursday, as a round of talks ended without agreement over limiting future construction on land the Palestinians want for a state.

The four days of high-level meetings in Washington marked the latest step by President Donald Trump’s aides aimed at opening the way to renewed peace diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, despite deep skepticism in the United States and Middle East over the chances for success.

Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who recently returned from a visit to the region, led the US delegation in what were described as “intensive discussions” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz and foreign policy adviser Jonathan Schachter.

Despite setting a more positive tone toward Israel than his predecessor Barack Obama, Trump urged Netanyahu during a White House visit last month to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.” The two then agreed that their aides would seek an accommodation on how much Israel can build and where.

“The United States delegation reiterated President Trump’s concerns regarding settlement activity in the context of moving towards a peace agreement,” according to a joint statement released by the White House.

“The Israeli delegation made clear that Israel’s intent going forward is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes those concerns into consideration,” it said. “The talks were serious and constructive, and they are ongoing.”

Trump has expressed some ambivalence about a two-state solution, the mainstay of US policy for the past two decades. But he recently invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit. Trump has not publicly detailed what kind of agreement he wants with Israel on settlements. But many supporters of a two-state solution have urged a formula that restricts construction to the large settlement blocs that Israel is expected to retain under any final peace accord.

In the talks, officials discussed measures for improving the climate for peace, according to the joint readout. It said a key focus was on steps that “could have a meaningful impact on the economic environment in the West Bank and Gaza,” and specifically a desire to advance efforts toward “self-sustainability” in electricity and water.

Settlement backer approved as Israel envoy

The US Senate on Thursday approved the appointment of President Donald Trump’s former bankruptcy lawyer, a supporter of Israeli settlement building, as Washington’s ambassador to Israel. Trump’s nomination of 58-year-old David Friedman, a man with a history of undiplomatic declarations, had raised concerns about America’s commitment to a two-state Middle East peace deal.

But Friedman apologized to lawmakers for his past harsh language at a confirmation hearing last month, and the Senate approved him by a margin of 52 to 46. Two of the chamber’s 52 Republicans did not vote and two of the 48 Democrats voted against their camp to approve Friedman.

But the Israel job was seen as a key bellwether of the new administration’s attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Friedman’s nomination was welcomed by the Israeli right. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Twitter that Friedman “will be warmly welcomed as President Trump’s representative and as a close friend of Israel.”

Before becoming the ambassadorial nominee, Friedman was known as a vocal supporter of Israeli causes, including the building of settlements on Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He clashed with American Jewish progressive groups, notably dubbing liberals “worse than kapos,” a reference to Jewish collaborators who worked as guards in Nazi prison camps.

And he is widely seen as hostile to the two-state solution – the vision of an end to the conflict in which Israel and a future Palestine live side-by-side within agreed borders. Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein voted against Friedman and dubbed him “too divisive to serve in one of our nation’s most sensitive diplomatic positions.”