WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump is warning Israel that constructing new settlements "may not be helpful" to Middle East peace efforts, shifting toward a tougher line with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
Still, the White House made clear Thursday that the Trump administration "has not taken an official position on settlement activity," departing from previous administrations that have considered the settlements illegitimate.
Trump has been perceived as sympathetic to the settlements. Shortly before taking office, he vigorously criticized the Obama administration for not vetoing a United Nations Security Council measure condemning settlements.
But in a statement Thursday, the White House said, "While we don'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 White House said the president would discuss the issue with Netanyahu when he travels to Washington later this month. The two leaders are scheduled to meet at the White House on Feb. 15.
The U.S. statement came 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 the court-ordered demolition of an illegal settler outpost. It was his latest step to expand Israeli settlement construction in the wake of Trump's inauguration.
Netanyahu repeatedly clashed with President Barack Obama during the Democrat's eight years in office, and Trump has vowed to be a better partner for Israel. Following the U.N. vote, Trump tweeted, "Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!" — referring to the date of his inauguration.
Trump has already appeared to slow his promises to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - a promise often made by presidential candidates, but never carried out in office because of fears the move would inflame tensions in the region.
Newly sworn-in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone Thursday with Netanyahu.
The prime minister's vow to establish new West Bank settlements came as Israeli security forces were completing the evacuation of Amona, where they broke into a synagogue to remove dozens of Israeli protesters who had barricaded themselves inside. Netanyahu's pro-settler 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.
Speaking at a ceremony in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Netanyahu expressed "great pain" over the removal of Amona.
According to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, Israel has not officially broken ground on a new settlement since 1992.
Since that time, however, it has greatly expanded its existing settlements and allowed dozens of unauthorized outposts to sprout up, in some cases subsequently legalizing them. In all, some 400,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, in addition to 200,000 others living in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state. The international community has opposed the settlements, built on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians, as obstacles to peace.
Britain and Germany, close Israeli allies, as well as the European Union criticized Netanyahu's approval this week of 3,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank.
"This spike in settlement activity undermines trust and makes a two-state solution - with an Israel that is safe from terrorism and a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign - much harder to achieve," said Britain's minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood.
Amona has emerged as a symbol of settler defiance. On Thursday, Israeli police completed the evacuation of the wind-swept community, where hundreds of Jewish activists joined residents in resisting the pullout.
Police began the evacuation Wednesday, but dozens of activists remained holed up in the synagogue. Police initially said 200 had barricaded themselves inside but later revised the number to about 100.
On Thursday, several hundred Israeli forces surrounded the building, and officers wearing goggles and wielding plastic shields broke through the doors and sprayed water to push back defiant protesters.
"The officers faced especially tough and violent resistance," police said in a statement. Protesters sprayed fire extinguishers at police and threw rocks, paint bottles and wooden planks, police said.
Slogans including "Death to Zionists" and a swastika comparing the Israeli police to Nazis were scrawled on the synagogue walls. The police later began dragging young protesters out of the building.
Speaking to Israel Radio from inside the synagogue, the rabbi of Amona said the protesters were peacefully resisting the uprooting of the outpost. He spoke above loud noises and shouting in the background. Earlier Thursday, police removed protesters holed up in a small home nearby.
Police said 24 officers were slightly injured throughout the evacuation, and 13 young protesters were arrested.
Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts erected in the West Bank without formal permission but with tacit Israeli government support. It witnessed violent clashes 11 years ago when police demolished nine homes found to have been built on private Palestinian land.
The Supreme Court last year determined that the entire outpost was built illegally and ordered it demolished.
Bernstein reported from Amona, West Bank.