The building of housing and settlements by Israel is a politically touchy subject. Contrary to popular belief that the US only discouraged the building of new settlements, the policy of the United States, since at least 1988, has been to discourage Israel from building more housing in settlements that exist outside the pre-1967 borders. This is because the alleged “peace process” is built around the fiction than the pre-1967 borders are meaningful and that Israel might be threatened or otherwise inveigled to withdraw back inside those boundaries.

In fact, the disgraceful US abstention from a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel was brought about because Israel built new housing, not in land currently under negotiation but inside of East Jerusalem, which the Arabs in their penchant for endless self-delusion seem to think is up for grabs but which Israel annexed and considers an inseparable part of Jerusalem itself.

Keep that in mind. The real issue is not exclusively new settlements, though they are an issue, but rather increasing the population in existing settlements and thereby creating facts upon the ground favoring Israel.

Yesterday, the Jerusalem Post ran an article titled TRUMP WARNS ISRAEL: STOP ANNOUNCING NEW SETTLEMENTS.

The White House warned Israel on Thursday to cease settlement announcements that are “unilateral” and “undermining” of President Donald Trump’s effort to forge Middle East peace, a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post.

For the first time, the administration confirmed that Trump is committed to a comprehensive two-state solution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict negotiated between the parties.

The official told the Post that the White House was not consulted on Israel’s unprecedented announcement of 5,500 new settlement housing units over the course of his first two weeks in office.

“As President Trump has made clear, he is very interested in reaching a deal that would end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is currently exploring the best means of making progress toward that goal,” the official said.

“With that in mind, we urge all parties to refrain from taking unilateral actions that could undermine our ability to make progress, including settlement announcements,” the official added. “The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward.”

This was hailed in some quarters a “warning” to Israel to cease settlement activity and in gloated about is the vestiges of #NeverTrump-land as Trump selling out Israel. The New York Times enthused it as “Trump Embraces Pillars of Obama’s Foreign Policy.” As John Podhoretz points out in Commentary, this is so poorly reported it would have to improve in order to merely be wrong:

What this letter does, in effect, is return the United States to the status quo ante before the Obama administration—specifically, to the policy outlined in a letter sent from George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon in 2004. In that letter, Bush said, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

This language was an acceptance of the reality that the most populous Israeli settlements beyond the pre-1967 borders would certainly remain in Israeli hands at the end of any successful peace negotiation with the Palestinians. And according to the officials who negotiated the matter, primarily Elliott Abrams of the Bush National Security Council (and full disclosure: my brother-in-law), it was understood that the expansion of existing population centers due to natural growth (families getting larger, people moving in) should not be considered a violation of the idea that there should be no new settlements. For if, like New York City, Ariel gets more populous, its land mass does not increase in size, just the number of people living there.

What this letter does, in effect, is return the United States to the status quo ante before the Obama administration—specifically, to the policy outlined in a letter sent from George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon in 2004. In that letter, Bush said, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

This language was an acceptance of the reality that the most populous Israeli settlements beyond the pre-1967 borders would certainly remain in Israeli hands at the end of any successful peace negotiation with the Palestinians. And according to the officials who negotiated the matter, primarily Elliott Abrams of the Bush National Security Council (and full disclosure: my brother-in-law), it was understood that the expansion of existing population centers due to natural growth (families getting larger, people moving in) should not be considered a violation of the idea that there should be no new settlements. For if, like New York City, Ariel gets more populous, its land mass does not increase in size, just the number of people living there.

As it turns out, this story, while accurately reported, was totally false and one can speculate that the source of the story passed the reporter an early and uncleared draft statement. Anyway, in damage control mode, the White House made on announcement on Israeli settlements.

The Statement:

“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. 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. As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”

Factually, this statement doesn’t threaten Israel. It doesn’t tell Israel to not build new settlements. The best way of describing the statement is “settlements? meh.” It says the administration does not see existing settlements as an impediment to peace AND it says it would prefer Israel not build new settlements but that it doesn’t think they make a lot of difference. Read the part in bold again. Again. Read it slow and aloud. This is a quantum shift in US policy on the Israel-Arab negotiations.

Then this came to my attention. Eugene Kontrovich, a law professor, Middle East expert, and writer at the Volokh Conspiracy, who, unlike me, actually knows what he’s talking about.

And there was a lot more:

What this means is that the kind of settlement activity that pissed Obama off is now fully congruent with US policy. What this means is that the US no longer cares about how many housing units are built in existing settlements no matter if the location of those settlements are giving the Arabs a sad. Its significance can’t be understated. What this statement does is say that the pre-1967 borders are gone, that any land currently occupied by Israel is open for settlement and it says that we’re not going to get very upset over Israel building new settlements. The statement doesn’t endorse a “two state solution” (which actually has to happen) and merely endorses “peace.” If anyone is warned in the statement it is the Palestinians who are told that every day that goes by without a final settlement will see more Israeli building and more Israeli settlements.

As the indispensable Omre Ceren tweets

https://twitter.com/omriceren/status/827374403818311680

This is not a sell out of Israel. This in not Trump yielding to Obama’s policy. This is not Trump laying down the law to Netanyahu. This is arguably the most pro-Israel political move taken by a US president since we recognized Israeli independence.