President Donald Trump spoke Sunday by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about ways to strengthen relations between their two countries and “threats posed by Iran,” according to the White House.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office described the conversation as “very warm” and Mr. Trump invited the prime minister to come to Washington to meet sometime in February. Relations between Israel and the U.S. grew strained under former President Barack Obama and his administration abstained from a United Nations resolution in December that declared settlement construction in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank illegal.
“The President and the Prime Minister agreed to continue to closely consult on a range of regional issues, including addressing the threats posed by Iran,” the White House said after Sunday’s call. “The President affirmed his unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security and stressed that countering ISIL and other radical Islamic terrorist groups will be a priority for his Administration,” it said, referring to Islamic State.
Mr. Trump also emphasized that peace could only be negotiated directly between Israelis and Palestinians, the White House said. That remark came after attempts earlier this month by France and the international community to convene a peace conference on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Previously, Mr. Trump has pledged to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which would be an unprecedented and politically charged move effectively recognizing the city as Israel’s capital. Palestinian officials have condemned the idea and warned they won’t be held responsible for violence that might erupt as a result of an embassy shift.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. They maintain that the status of Jerusalem should be decided as part of broader Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“We are at the very beginning stages of even discussing this subject,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Sunday of the possible embassy relocation.
Saeb Erekat, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which negotiates with Israel in peace talks, has said such a move would signal the end of the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Abbas met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II on Sunday in Amman and the two leaders agreed to take measures in response to a potential U.S. decision to move the embassy, a statement on official Palestinian news agency Wafa said late Sunday. It didn’t disclose details about the measures.
The White House said a date for Messrs. Trump and Netanyahu to meet in February would be set soon. The meeting will be closely watched by Israelis, Palestinians and the international community as Mr. Trump has indicated he will significantly shift U.S. policy on the Middle East peace process while the Israeli prime minister has said he is open to discussing new ideas.
The two leaders also are expected to consider the landmark nuclear deal Iran reached with six world powers including the U.S. in 2015. Mr. Trump has vowed to dismantle it.
“Stopping the Iranian threat, and first and foremost the threat reflected in the bad nuclear agreement that was signed with Iran, continues to be a supreme goal of the State of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said ahead of the call.
Hours before the two leaders spoke, Jerusalem officials approved construction of hundreds of new settlement units in East Jerusalem.
Mr. Trump, who took office on Friday, has in the past indicated Israel should continue to build settlements in the occupied territories, a departure from past U.S. policy and major point of contention for Palestinians living there.
Jerusalem officials on Sunday approved building permits for 566 units in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and another 105 in Arab neighborhoods.
“We had eight difficult years of Obama who pressured for freezing of construction,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said. “I hope that the era is concluded and from now on we will continue to build and develop Jerusalem for the good of its citizens, both Jewish and Arab.”
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, criticized the decision, calling it “an obvious challenge” to the U.N. resolution.
Israeli lawmakers from Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition planned to discuss new legislation to annex a major settlement in the West Bank and impose Israeli law there, a spokesman for one of the bill’s proponents said Sunday. The lawmakers had been waiting for Mr. Obama to leave the White House before discussing the bill.
On Sunday, Israel’s intelligence and transport minister Yisrael Katz said he would propose an initiative to annex the major settlement of Ma’ale Adumim as well as other settlements in and around Jerusalem.
Mr. Katz, who is considered a senior leader in Mr. Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, said Israel should annex at least four major settlements to establish a greater Jerusalem metropolis and coordinate the steps with the U.S. administration.
Palestinian officials have called on Israel not to unilaterally annex West Bank territory.
Hundreds of Palestinians last week marched in the West Bank to protest against the possibility of the U.S. moving its embassy and the Israeli government’s treatment of Arabs living in Israel.