Israel pressed ahead with plans to build 3,300 new settlement homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, raising tensions with the U.S. at a time when the allies are at odds over a new Palestinian government.
The government will build 1,500 new homes on land the Palestinians claim for a future state in response to this week’s creation of a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, Israeli Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel said. The Gaza Strip-based Islamic movement is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and European Union.
“I welcome this decision to give a proper Zionist response to the establishment of the Palestinian terror government,” Ariel said in an e-mailed statement. The government has issued marketing bids for the new homes, he said, the first step in a process that can take years.
The erection of an additional 1,800 settlement homes in various stages of approval or construction will be moved ahead at a meeting of a government planning committee next week, an Israeli official said, speaking anonymously because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is “deeply concerned” about Israel’s tenders for new housing units in the West Bank, and reiterated that settlement construction on occupied territory is illegal under international law, according to an e-mailed statement from Ban’s office.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro condemned the plans for new homes as detrimental to peace efforts.
“We oppose settlement construction in the West Bank, as well as announcements regarding such construction,” he told Army Radio. The U.S. would have denounced the move “with or without this disputed issue of a new Palestinian transitional government,” Shapiro added.
The U.S. announced this week it would work with the new Palestinian government because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t appoint any Hamas ministers and pledged to honor past agreements with Israel.
“Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but will be watching closely to ensure that it upholds principles that President Abbas reiterated,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on June 2.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that he was “deeply disappointed” with Psaki’s statement. “If the U.S. administration wants to advance peace, it should be calling on Abbas to end his pact with Hamas and return to peace talks with Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev had no comment today on the plans for new settlement homes.
“The Netanyahu government was disappointed by the U.S. response to the Palestinian government, and clearly they see the way to transmit that message is with these kind of actions,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “As for the repercussions, with the exception of the very strong security arrangement that remains between Israel and the U.S., the atmospherics between the Netanyahu and Obama governments are already just about as freezing as they can get, and they’ll stay frozen.”
The Palestinians condemned the announcement of new settlement homes, which came on the 47th anniversary of the start of the 1967 Mideast war when Israel captured territories including the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
“The government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu has reaffirmed its intent to challenge international law and international peace efforts by further colonizing our occupied country,”Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in an e-mailed statement.
Erekat said the Palestinians “are carefully studying and weighing” their response. He called on the international community “to assume its responsibilities,” including by boycotting Israeli settlement products and divesting from all companies “involved directly or indirectly in the Israeli occupation,” according to the statement.
The announcement by Ariel, whose Jewish Home party opposes a Palestinian state and supports settlement building, also widened rifts in Netanyahu’s Likud-led ruling coalition. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the Hatenuah party and Israel’s lead negotiator in U.S.-sponsored peace talks that recently collapsed, called the new construction plans “another diplomatic mistake that will just make it harder for us to mobilize the world against Hamas.”
Talks broke down in late April, after Netanyahu failed to release Palestinian prisoners who were supposed to be freed as part of the U.S.-brokered arrangement to renew negotiations, and Abbas signed the unity deal with Hamas. The pact ended a seven-year rift that produced rival governments in the West Bank and Gaza.