The Obama administration sharpened its criticism of Israel’s housing construction plans in east Jerusalem, following steps toward building an additional 1,500 homes on land claimed by Palestinians.
In citing Israel for actions that “run counter to the cause of peace,” the U.S. escalated its dispute with Israel’s leadership after President Barack Obama’s re-election and ahead of the Israeli vote next month, with polls showing a strong lead for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc.
The U.S. is “deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday, responding to Israeli announcements in recent days involving east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“Repeated announcements and plans of new construction run counter to the cause of peace,” she told reporters in Washington. “Israel’s leaders continually say that they support a path towards a two-state solution, yet these actions only put that goal further at risk.”
While Nuland urged both Israelis and Palestinians to avoid provocations and return to peace talks, her remarks were a rare instance in which the U.S. singled out Israel with such pointed criticism.
“There is no room to expand in Jerusalem other than the eastern half of the city,” Israeli Minister of Housing and Construction Ariel Atias said today, adding that such building was done by all previous governments. “The issue has been blown out of proportion,” he said in an interview with Army Radio.
David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy cautioned that “it’s a little too soon” to tell whether the State Department criticism marks the beginning of an escalation in U.S.-Israeli tensions.
“Without having a new secretary of state in place, I think it’s fair to call the period we’re in a kind of interregnum, therefore I’d be cautious about extrapolating too much about what this means,” Makovsky said.
Netanyahu could find the U.S. criticism beneficial as he woos a nationalistic element of the Israeli public ahead of Jan. 22 elections, Makovsky said.
Netanyahu said yesterday Israel will not be deterred from expanding Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, which the Jewish state regards as part of its unified capital. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed it in a step never recognized internationally. The U.S. regards the final status of Jerusalem as a matter to be determined in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the state of Israel and we will continue to build there,” Netanyahu said.
A government committee gave interim approval on Dec. 17 to a construction plan in east Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo section, which raised tensions with the U.S. two years ago when the plan was announced during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden.
“Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and I condemn this decision,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said, according to an e-mailed statement yesterday from his office.
In a telephone call yesterday that touched on various foreign issues, Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron agreed “on the need to find a way forward on Middle East peace that stops the cycle of counterproductive unilateral actions by the Israelis and Palestinians,” according to a statement issued by the White House.
Following a closed-door consultation set for today by the 15-member UN Security Council, all the nations other than the U.S. will condemn Israeli construction plans, Palestinian UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour told reporters yesterday in New York. The council members are the U.S., France, the U.K., Germany, Portugal, Morocco, India, Russia, China, South Africa, Colombia, Guatemala, Togo, Azerbaijan and Pakistan.
Their action would be symbolic since the statements are not binding.
Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they’re trying to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The UN General Assembly recognized Palestine as a non-member state on Nov. 29.
Israel also announced this month that it will advance plans for an area in the West Bank known as E-1 between Jerusalem and the Maaleh Adumim settlement.
The U.S. and Europe have pressed Israel for years not to proceed with development in E-1, which the United Nations says threatens to split a future Palestine and cut off Palestinians from their desired capital of east Jerusalem. Israeli officials say that development wouldn’t necessarily prevent a contiguous Palestinian state and that Israel expects to retain the area under any future negotiated deal with the Palestinians to ensure access to Maaleh Adumim.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to hold direct talks with Israel unless it ceases all construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, a condition Netanyahu says he won’t meet.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group, said that the Obama administration’s bark about Israel has lacked bite.
Yesterday’s comments are “another example of how the United States allows its rhetoric to exceed its prospective actions,” Miller, a Middle East peace negotiator under President Bill Clinton, said in a telephone interview.