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Israeli settlement-building may not aid peace: White House

'We will not always agree on everything,' says Israeli officials in response to more measured tone from US President's office on illegal settlements
Israel has approved a slew of settlement projects since Trump came to office (AFP)

Israel's building of new settlements or - expansion of existing ones - in illegally occupied territories may not be helpful in achieving peace with Palestinians, the White House said on Thursday, adopting a more measured tone than its previous pro-Israel announcements.

In a statement issued two weeks before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to visit US President Donald Trump, the White House said the administration "has not taken an official position on settlement activity."

Since Trump came to office Israel has approved a slew of new construction in existing settlements, moves that critics say risks making a two-state solution impossible - the mayor of Jerusalem openly said that the signing-off of new settlement packages was put off until after Trump came to office.

Israel approved plans for 3,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the illegally occupied West Bank earlier this week, taking to more than 6,000 the number announced since Trump took office last month.

Trump, a Republican, has signalled he could be more accommodating toward settlement projects than his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. But the latest statement reflects slightly more nuanced language on how the new administration views settlement activity.

"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 in a statement.

The statement could disappoint Israel's far-right, which had hoped Trump would give an unqualified green light on rapid settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem - areas Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

In the first Israeli reaction to the statement, Danny Danon, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, said it was too early to tell how it would affect future building.

"It's still too early to tell ... I would not categorise this as a U-turn by the US administration but the issue is clearly on their agenda ... the issue will be discussed when the prime minister (Netanyahu) meets the president in Washington," Danon told Israel Radio.

"We will not always agree on everything," he added.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke by phone with Netanyahu on Thursday, the State Department said. It did not say whether they discussed the White House statement.

Obama routinely criticised settlement construction plans and his administration often described settlement activity as lacking legitimacy and impeding peace.

Palestinian leaders accuse Israel of using settlements to attempt to divide the West Bank in order to undermine the viability of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking about an operation by Israeli security forces to relocate settlers from Amona, a settlement ordered to be demolished by Israel's high court, elsewhere in the West Bank, Mustafa Bargouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told MEE: "What Netanyahu has done is a big trick and dangerous propaganda, there is no real eviction at all. A few settlers are being moved from a few houses on Palestinian private land to other confiscated Palestinian lands

"There is a use of the Amona issue to hide the Israeli decision to build another 3,000 new housing units, [part of a plan] to divide the West Bank in two, surround Jerusalem, and prevent any opportunity for a Palestinian state and the option of two state solution."

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