White House says Israeli settlement building may not help peace

WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - The Trump administration said on Thursday Israel's building of new settlements or expansion of existing ones in occupied territories may not be helpful in achieving peace with Palestinians, 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 U.S. President Donald Trump, the White House said the administration "has not taken an official position on settlement activity."

Related: Life inside Israeli settlements

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Life inside Israeli settlements
A Jewish man covered in a prayer shawl, prays in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank December 18, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Israeli teenagers rest in a tent as they prepare for an expected eviction of the Jewish settlement outpost of Amona in the West Bank, December 9, 2016 REUTERS/Amir Cohen
A construction site is seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, in the occupied West Bank December 22, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Houses are seen in the Jewish settlement of Har Gilo, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Israeli soldiers are seen next to a bus stop covered with posters from the Israeli branch of the U.S. Republican party campaign in favour of Donald Trump, near the West Bank Jewish Settlement of Ariel October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Palestinian labourer works at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Houses in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev are seen from the Israeli settlement of Givon Ha'hadasha (bottom), in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A general view shows a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Israeli youths build a wooden structure in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona, in the West Bank November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Palestinian labourers work at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Students do pull-ups as they train at the Bnei David academy, the first religious military prep school and Jewish seminary, in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Eli, south of Nablus, January 31, 2016. Picture taken on January 31, 2016. To match Special Report ISRAEL-MILITARY/RELIGION REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
A Palestinian labourer walks at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A man pushes a shopping cart outside Shufersal, Israel's largest supermarket chain, in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Mishor Adumim near Jerusalem May 5, 2013. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/Files Photo
A Palestinian labourer works at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Houses are seen in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev (bottom) with the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the backgraund, in the occupied West Bank, December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A worker walks on scaffoldings in a construction site at the Israeli settlement of Har Homa, in the occupied West Bank December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A general view shows a Star of David near buildings in the Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Israelis are seen near a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ramat Shlomo, in the occupied West Bank December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A Palestinian labourer prays during his lunch break at Aluminum Construction, a factory located in the Industrial Park of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, February 3, 2016. Picture taken February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
A construction worker labours on a building in the Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Bulidings can be seen under construction in the Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Bulidings under construction are seen in the Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank, December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
A Palestinian man rides a donkey near the Israeli settlement of Maale Edumim, in the occupied West Bank, December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Israeli boys from the Ziv family play outside their home in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank, November 22, 2016. Picture taken November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Houses are seen in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim as the Palestinian village of Al-Eizariya is seen in the background May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
An Israeli boy looks through the sight of a weapon during a display of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) equipment and abilities at the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, April 23, 2015, during celebrations for Israel's Independence Day, marking the 67th anniversary of the creation of the state. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Elad Ziv prepares food in his home in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank, November 22, 2016. Picture taken November 22, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Israeli youths push a water tank as they construct a temporary barrier in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Players from Israeli soccer clubs affiliated with Israel Football Association, Ariel Municipal Soccer Club and Maccabi HaSharon Netanya, play against each other at Ariel Municipal Soccer Club's training grounds in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel September 23, 2016. Picture taken September 23, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Israeli youths use a tractor as they build wooden structures in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona, in the West Bank November 29, 2016. The sticker on the tractor in Hebrew reads:, "For the second time, Amona will not fall" REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Israeli teenagers walk on graffiti reading in Hebrew "Soldier, policeman, refuse orders" as they prepare for an expected eviction of the Jewish settlement outpost of Amona in the West Bank, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Palestinian labourers work at Aluminum Construction, a factory located in the Industrial Park of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, February 3, 2016. Picture taken February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Israeli men stand next to a structure with Hebrew graffiti reading "over Judea and Samaria, there will be war" in the early morning in the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the West Bank December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
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Trump, a Republican, has signaled he could be more accommodating toward settlement projects than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. 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.

SEE MORE: Hardline Israeli West Bank settlers optimistic about Jared Kushner

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 war.

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

The White House statement came as Israel has ratcheted up settlement activity. On Wednesday, it said it would establish a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, the first since the late 1990s. It also announced plans for 3,000 more settlement homes in the West Bank, the third such declaration in less than two weeks since Trump took office.

An announcement a week ago by Israel that it would build some 2,500 more dwellings in the West Bank, territory captured in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war and where Palestinians now seek statehood, drew rebukes from the Palestinians and the European Union. (Reporting by Washington Newsroom; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Eric Beech and Bill Rigby)

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