When the Trump White House issued a statement Thursday night articulating the new administration’s stance on Israeli settlement construction, my initial reaction was that it was a radical departure from the Obama administration’s policy and perhaps the most sympathetic statement to Israel on the issue ever to come from a U.S. president.

So it was quite astonishing to read a front page article in the New York Times that began, “President Trump, after promising a radical break with the foreign policy of Barack Obama, is embracing some key pillars of the former administration’s strategy, including warning Israel to curb settlement construction …”

Given that many other media outlets have taken the same line and how much confusion this has caused, it’s important to spell out how much of a departure the Trump statement was from Obama’s policy.

Obama, when he came into office, argued that to achieve peace in the region, there had to be “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. If the U.S. was not seen as so reflexively pro-Israel, he argued, it would make the U.S. a more credible peace broker. To achieve this daylight, he began his presidency by demanding that Israel freeze all housing construction, even as Jewish families grew in communities around the Israeli capital of Jerusalem.

By the end of his administration, Obama allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution that declared all Israeli housing beyond its original borders to be illegal – a standard that treats the Western Wall, the Jewish holy site, as illegally occupied territory. Secretary of State John Kerry then followed up with a lengthy speech in which he lashed out at Israel. “No one thinking seriously about peace can ignore the reality of what the settlements pose to that peace,” he said. And he boasted that throughout the Obama administration, “We have made countless public and private exhortations to the Israelis to stop the march of settlements. I mean literally hundreds of conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu…”

So, compare this to what has happened under Trump. In the week since Trump has taken office, Israel has announced 5,500 new housing units, and there had been no public statements condemning the activity.

Then, on Thursday, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Trump administration had told Israel to cease any more announcements while advocating support for a two-state solution. But that report cited an anonymous source, so there’s no way of knowing if that person was authorized to explain the actual position of the Trump administration. All I am going on below is the public statement issued by the White House after that report. So, it’s worth quoting the entire statement, and then taking it piece by piece.

“The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years,” the statement read. “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.”

There are several things that immediately jump out as being a radical departure from the Obama White House. First, while the statement mentions the “desire to peace,” at no point does it mention a two-state solution, let alone describe it as the only way to achieve peace. Second, it says, “we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace.” That’s a major break with Obama, who viewed settlements as a central obstacle.

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The next clause is the closest that the administration comes to criticism, and it’s what the media jumped on: “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.” But again, if you pick it apart, it’s quite tepid. Firstly, it’s using the conditional “may not be helpful” rather than an affirmative “is not helpful.” Secondly, taking issue with the construction of new settlements still leaves room for the building of new homes within the borders of existing settlements. This statement, in other words, is compatible with allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to remain in settlements that the Obama administration believed illegal, and then allowing wiggle room to grow within the current boundaries.

If that’s not enough, the statement goes on to state that the administration has not taken an official position and looks forward to talking with Prime Minister Netanyahu about it. So in other words, even the mild suggestion that expansion of settlements (which are not an obstacle to peace) might not be a good idea, should not be seen as a formal demand to cease that activity.

Not only is this sort of rhetoric mild compared to Obama, it’s arguably more tepid than any administration in history.

Even George W. Bush’s administration, considered by many to be the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, was critical of settlements, even though he eventually came to acknowledge that at least some Jewish presence beyond Israel’s 1949 borders was inevitable. In 2002, for instance, the 20021125173854safi@pd.state.gov0.773205.html#axzz4XdWdbeJQ”>Bush State Department said, “settlement activity has severely undermined Palestinian trust and hope, preempts and prejudges the outcome of negotiations, and in doing so, cripples chances for real peace and prosperity. The US has long opposed settlement activity and, consistent with the report of the Mitchell Committee, settlement activity must stop.”

To be clear, it’s early in a new administration, and Trump still has plenty of time to evolve on the issue. We certainly cannot say, based on one statement, where he’ll end up.

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But for now, it’s incredible that anybody who follows the issue could take the Trump statement to signal he’s adopting anything close to the Obama era policy.

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