President Donald Trump bluntly pointedly asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a private call whether he legitimately cares about peace.
The comment came in the context of new Israeli settlement construction – a charged issue that led led to strain in the Obama Administration’s relations with the Israeli government.
Trump made the comment in a phone call with Netanyahu last year, Axios reported.
The statement shocked some of the aides who helped him prepare for the call, according to the report.
The White House did not deny the report when the publication presented the details.
“The President has great relationships with a number of foreign leaders but that doesn’t mean he can’t be aggressive when it comes to negotiating what’s best for America,” said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
A senior administration official said: T’he President has an extremely close and candid relationship with the Prime Minister of Israel and appreciates his strong efforts to enhance the cause of peace in the face of numerous challenges.’
As described in the report, Trump had been pressing Netanyahu about making a deal for Middle East peace, having read abotu his plans to approve additional settlement construction.
Trump believed this unnecessarily angered the Palestinian side, according to the report, prompting the statement about whether Netanyahu is generally interested in peace.
The behind-the-scenes pressure comes despite a public posture where there is virtually no daylight between Trump and Netanyahu’s conservative government.
Trump cast aside the advice of many diplomats who feared blowback when he announced the U.S. would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Trump tweeted in January after the announcement, which prompted the Palestinians to boycott talks that, ‘We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table, but Israel, for that, would have had to pay more.’
Trump has been a steadfast supporter of Netanyahu, even as the Israeli leader has faced a corruption scandal in Israel.
In February, Trump said Israeli settlements ‘complicate’ the peace process.
He told Yisrael Hayom: ‘The settlements are something that very much complicates and always have complicated making peace, so I think Israel has to be very careful with the settlements.’
Israel announced the construction of 2,500 settlements soon after Trump took office.