According to Axios, President Trump bluntly asked Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call last year whether or not the Israeli Prime Minister actually cares about peace, after reading reports that Bibi was planning to build additional settlements to pander to his conservative base in Israel.
...in the course of a longer conversation that was mostly friendly and complimentary, he bluntly asked Bibi whether or not he genuinely wants peace. -Axios
"The 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," a senior White House official said in response to the report.
In March 2017, just a few short months after the Obama administration refused to veto a UN demand that Israel halt all settlement in occupied territories - President Trump said he would like to see Netanyahu "hold back on settlements for a little bit," and that he would "like to see a deal be made."
Publicly, Trump told the press of his close relationship with Netanyahu:
Bibi and I have known each other a long time — a smart man, great negotiator. And I think we’re going to make a deal. It might be a bigger and better deal than people in this room even understand. That’s a possibility. So let’s see what we do. –Donald Trump
That said, Israeli monitoring group Peace Now says that West Bank settlement construction surged during the first year of Trump's presidency - claiming that Israel began construction of 2,783 settlement homes in 2017, around 17% higher than the annual average since Netanyahu took office in 2009.
The Palestinians and most of the international community consider Israeli settlements to be illegal and obstacles to peace. Over 600,000 settlers now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
While a string of Republican and Democratic presidents have opposed settlement construction, Trump has taken a softer line. He has asked Israel to show restraint at times, but avoided the strong condemnations voiced by his predecessors. His Mideast peace team, led by his son in law Jared Kushner, is dominated by people with close ties to the settlement movement.
Peace Now said its data is collected through aerial surveys and inspections by monitors on the ground. In its report, Peace Now stopped short of blaming the jump in construction exclusively on White House policies. -CTV
Trump approach to foreign policy
Axios also sheds light on Trump's unconventional approach to foreign policy, which is reported to be based on his personal rapport with world leaders.
- A perfect example: The United Kingdom. Though Trump has great affection for Britain (he has golf courses there, appreciates the special relationship, and has referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit”), he and Theresa May have a fraught relationship. He hits the roof when he reads that she's criticized him. So he has yet to visit America's closest ally, even after last year's terrorist bombings in Manchester, though a source privy to private discussions tells me that it's "quite likely" that Trump visits the UK before the summer.
- Another example: Trump finds Japan’s trade practices and regulations to be very irksome. But he has a great personal chemistry with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and would likely be going far harder on the country if their relationship were tense.
The President's interactions with foreign leaders is described as "often hot and cold, often disregarding diplomatic conventions and basic briefing materials," which has left the administration's National Security staff scrambling to adapt to his Trumpian approach to word affairs.
The President reportedly just chews the fat with world leaders "as he does with his Manhattan real estate friends." This "freelance" style - rarely using scripts or notes, has sometimes worked to his advantage.
he's established genuinely good relationships with leaders like Emmanuel Macron of France and King Salman of Saudi Arabia — but it's also at times thrown staunch allies like the U.K. and Germany off-balance. And it makes the national security establishment — many of whom have longitudinal views of these relationships — break out in hives. -Axios
All Trump reportedly asks to know before he meets with most foreign leaders:
- What is the trade deficit with their country?
- How big is their army, and how much of it does America pay for?
- How much foreign aid, if any, does the U.S. provide to the country?
In other words, "what are we doing for them and how much are they contributing in return?"
Oh, and Trump's staff has had to learn the hard way; always tell Trump if a foreign leader has talked shit.
- Trump was furious with his national security team for not telling him in advance of his meeting last year with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras that Tsipras said during the presidential campaign that Trump represents an "evil" ideology.
- At Trump's joint press conference with the Greek leader, Fox's John Roberts quoted the brutal things Tsipras had said about Trump. The president blew up at his team afterwards for not finding this out and briefing him about it in advance. -Axios
In regards to peace in the Middle East, it's unclear how Netanyahu answered Trump, although it obviously does not matter.