JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli newspaper quoted President Donald Trump on Friday as saying that settlement expansion in land claimed by the Palestinians does not advance peace, indicating there might be some difficult discussions on the topic in a high profile White House meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week.
Netanyahu has been on a settlement construction binge since Trump took office, apparently believing the new administration would be far more lenient on the settlements than his predecessor.
But in an interview with a pro-Netanyahu daily published Friday, Trump said: "They (settlements) don't help the process. I can say that. There is so much land left. And every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left. But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we'll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."
The remarks came in a Trump interview with Yisrael Hayom, a free newspaper financed by American billionaire and Netanyahu backer Sheldon Adelson a few days before the prime minister visits the White House. The two leaders are scheduled to meet at the White House on Feb. 15.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war from Jordan, as parts of their future independent state — a position that has wide international backing.
Most of the international community considers all Israeli settlements in the territory illegal and counterproductive to peace. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in the two areas.
After years of conflict with President Barack Obama over settlements, Netanyahu's hard-line government has grown emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump. The new president had signaled he will take a much softer approach to the settlements. Trump's campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, departing from two decades of American policy, his designated ambassador to Israel is a settler ally, and a delegation of settler leaders was invited to his inauguration.
Since Trump took office, Israel has approved plans to build more than 6,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu's nationalist coalition is dominated by West Bank settlers and their supporters. The Jewish Home, a powerful coalition ally, believes that with a friendly U.S. president in office, it is time for Netanyahu to lay out a clear policy for the West Bank, including the possible annexation of parts of the territory.
"Well, I want Israel to be reasonable with respect to peace. I want to see peace happen. It should happen," Trump told the paper. "After all these years. ... Maybe there is even a chance for a bigger peace than just Israel and the Palestinians. I would like to see a level of reasonableness of both parties, and I think we have a good chance of doing that."
Netanyahu butted heads with Obama over the 2015 deal between Iran and world powers that imposed curbs on Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. Netanyahu has said the deal won't stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons' capability, which he views as a threat to Israel's existence.
Trump has said he wants to renegotiate the accord, without elaborating.
"Well, I think we are going to have a better relationship," Trump told Yosrael Hayom. "The deal with Iran was a disaster for Israel. Inconceivable that it was made. It was poorly negotiated and executed. Everything about that deal was something. ... You know, as a deal person, I understand all sides of deals. I understand good deals and bad deals, but this deal is not even comprehensible. Beyond comprehension. And you see the way Iran has reacted; unlike reacting as they should, which is being thankful for President (Barack) Obama for making such a deal, which was so much to their advantage. They felt emboldened even before he left office. It is too bad a deal like that was made."