Trump administration attempts to rewrite Israel-Palestine peace process, but US envoy to UN says ‘settlements must stop’
The US president, Donald Trump, has made clear that the US does not accept Israel’s construction of settlements on occupied land, a Middle East policy move condemned by Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has cultivated a close relationship with Trump and wants to see the US president back away from the two-state solution, praised the US president’s position.
Trump’s goal for the region is a deal “that will guarantee peace and prosperity for both peoples”. This will require the parties to agree on “final status issues, including final borders, security arrangements, the status of Jerusalem and the future of refugees”, said his chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
The Palestinians have said they will not return to peace talks while settlements expand in the West Bank. However, some rightwing Israelis see greater settlement construction as a pre-condition for negotiations, saying that only those living in state- recognised areas can form the basis of a final settlement.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was “a person who has committed to fighting racism and the expansion of settlements”, Priebus said. He added: “I think we are on the right track.”
The settlement efforts were described as the “biggest change to our Middle East policy since 1967” by the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.
Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, hailed the decision as “the best thing to happen to the Middle East for 10 years”, and added: “Obama is history.”
This is not the first time that Trump has taken a different position from his predecessor, Barack Obama. He initially set himself up to make a historic peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians but has since cooled on the prospect. Instead, he has focused on securing Israel’s recognition of a Palestinian state – a move no Israeli prime minister has yet accepted – and pledging to cut off funding to Palestinian institutions that support terrorism.
In March, the US walked out of a UN security council meeting on the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, replacing a statement backing a two-state solution with criticism of previous resolutions that have criticised Israel.
Tillerson said the change was an attempt to “reset” the US position on the Middle East and prevent tensions escalating, but it drew condemnation from a number of countries including Russia and Egypt.
Some past efforts to influence the peace process have been met with hostility by both Israelis and Palestinians. In 2009, when the US tried to push through the Middle East peace process under Obama, it came under international criticism for its direct involvement in negotiations with Israel, and was accused of sacrificing Palestinian interests in favour of Israeli peace plans.
Israel has also criticised previous US attempts to shift the peace process by shifting the goalposts, such as with the idea of a “just outcome”, an attempt to condense a negotiated settlement into a series of one- or two-state solutions.
Palestinians also have voiced concern about proposed plans to advance “pick-and-mix” arrangements that would allow Israel to maintain its settlement programme, while the Palestinians retain control of the East Jerusalem holy sites that are sacred to both sides.
The US did not confirm details of the plan, but listed several “known elements” including continued Israeli settlement construction, which are inconsistent with the two-state solution.
On Wednesday the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, distanced the US from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, describing it as “essentially a form of boycott” that is neither “legitimate” nor “helpful”.
Israeli NGO Peace Now’s spokesman, Hagit Ofran, called on the US to “tighten its grip on the word” on the Israeli settlement issue, saying it was up to Israel and its settler supporters to “deal with this problem through political means rather than continued use of American leverage”.