The Obama administration on Wednesday castigated the Israeli government for approving plans to create a new Jewish settlement on the West Bank, three weeks after it signed a lucrative military aid package with the United States and just as President Obama was traveling to Jerusalem for the funeral of Shimon Peres.
In an uncommonly harsh statement, the State Department “strongly condemned” the move, asserting that it violated Israel’s pledge not to construct new settlements and ran counter to the long-term security interests Israel was seeking to protect with the military deal, which provides $38 billion in assistance over the next decade.
The new settlement, one of a string of housing complexes that threaten to bisect the West Bank, is designed to house settlers from a nearby illegal outpost, Amona, which an Israeli court has ordered demolished.
The timing of the approval especially infuriated the White House, American officials said, because it came after Mr. Obama met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations. Mr. Netanyahu, they said, gave the president no advance warning, even though Mr. Obama expressed deep concerns about Israel’s continuing settlement construction. The officials declined to speak for attribution owing to the sensitivity of the issue.
“It is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the U.S. and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for a two-state solution that he so passionately supported,” the State Department’s deputy spokesman, Mark Toner, said in the four-paragraph statement.
The harsh words also rekindled speculation that Mr. Obama might lay down guidelines for a proposed peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before he leaves office, either in a speech or, less likely, by backing a resolution at the United Nations Security Council.
“The administration has been escalating its rhetoric in opposition to West Bank settlement activity for more than a year,” said Martin S. Indyk, who served as Mr. Obama’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “The government of Israel doesn’t seem to be listening.”
“At a certain point,” said Mr. Indyk, who is now the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, “the administration may well decide that there needs to be consequences for what it now sees as an effort to close off the two-state solution.”
Mr. Obama, officials said, has kept his own counsel about whether to thrust himself back into the peace process. After two failed attempts to broker an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, the president is leery of getting involved in another hopeless effort, aides say. He would also likely consult with Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, were she to win to make sure his move did not complicate her plans.
The plan for a new settlement grows out of a bitter impasse between the Israeli authorities and settlers in Amona, which sits on a hilltop near the Palestinian administrative capital, Ramallah. Israel’s High Court of Justice has ordered the residents of Amona, which is built on private, Palestinian-owned land, to leave by Dec. 25.
The government’s plan is to move them to the newly approved settlement, built on public land, which would initially have 98 houses and eventually could accommodate up to 300 houses. The settlers have so far refused, creating an acute political crisis for Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government.
The Israeli authorities have dealt with other such standoffs by seeking to retroactively legalize the settlements. But because Amona is built on private Palestinian land, it cannot solve the problem with legal machinations. Israeli authorities view the settlement as a “satellite” of another settlement, Shvut Rachel, which itself was retroactively legalized and lies within the redrawn boundaries of an established settlement, Shilo.
“The 98 housing units approved in Shilo do not constitute a ‘new settlement,’ ” Israel’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “Israel,” the ministry added, “remains committed to a solution of two states for two peoples, in which a demilitarized Palestinian state recognizes the Jewish state of Israel.”
For American officials, the problem is that Israel is establishing a string of settlements, which the administration’s statement said “effectively divide the West Bank and make the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more remote.” The latest settlement, the State Department said, was “deep in the West Bank, far closer to Jordan than to Israel.”
No matter how strongly worded its condemnations, some former diplomats said, it would do little to change Israel’s behavior. They urged Mr. Obama to lay down his version of a road map to a peace deal.
“Of course he should,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt. “These statements are meaningless if there is no action. The U.S. should expect Israel not to do these things, especially as ‘compensation’ for removal of an illegal outpost.”
Israel has a long history of ill-timed announcements on settlements.
In 2010, four months after Mr. Netanyahu had agreed to a moratorium on the construction of settlements in the West Bank, municipal authorities in Jerusalem approved 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish housing development in East Jerusalem that had been excluded from the agreement. The announcement came as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was visiting Israel, and was viewed in Washington as a slap in the face.
At Mr. Obama’s behest, Mrs. Clinton, then secretary of state, delivered a 43-minute lecture to Mr. Netanyahu over the phone. Officials said the episode angered the president more than Mr. Biden himself.
Settlements have poisoned the relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu from the earliest days of the administration. Mr. Obama demanded that Israel halt construction as a gesture to draw the Palestinians back to the bargaining table. Mr. Netanyahu complained that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, frittered away most of the 10-month moratorium before sitting down to talk.
The timing of this approval, administration officials said, was particularly galling: Israeli authorities approved the settlement on the day that Mr. Peres, one of Israel’s founding fathers, died — and two days before Mr. Obama arrived in Jerusalem. That raised the possibility that the news could have leaked out while the president was at the funeral, which officials said would have dwarfed the diplomatic uproar during Mr. Biden’s visit.
For Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, it is a bitter coda to a relationship that seemed to end on an uncharacteristically gracious note in New York, when the two men smiled for the cameras, and the prime minister invited the president to Israel to play golf at a course next to his house.
Privately, the president raised concerns with Mr. Netanyahu about settlement construction and what Mr. Obama regards as its corrosive effect on the peace process. On Wednesday, Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, said the administration felt misled yet again by the Israelis.
“We did receive public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this announcement,” Mr. Earnest said. “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern as well.”
Original Article: New York Times