JERUSALEM — The Israeli government pushed back Thursday against the latest U.S. condemnation of its settlement enterprise as commentators called it another sign of fraying relations between the Jewish state and its most steadfast ally.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement reacting to the unusually sharp language in the State Department’s “strong condemnation” of Israeli plans to build new settler housing “deep in the West Bank,” closer to Jordan than Israel. The Foreign Ministry said the 98 housing units approved for the Shilo area do not constitute “a new settlement.”
Ayelet Shaked, Israeli’s justice minister and a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said Washington should train its condemnation on Syria “rather than criticizing where Israel builds houses.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Thursday that “we must give our lives” for the cause of annexing the West Bank to Israel.
The Israeli government’s ire was piqued by statements Wednesday from the White House and State Department that further ratcheted up the Obama administration’s criticism of Israel’s settlement policy.
The tone began changing late last year, when Secretary of State John F. Kerry told a gathering at the B rookings Institution’s S aban Forum that Israel’s settlement expansion was closing off possibilities for a two-state solution. He said Israel would not be able to maintain itself as a Jewish and democratic state if the trend continued.
Since then, in what seems a deliberate calibration, the State Department has spoken out strongly almost every time Israel has announced new housing, not only in the West Bank but also in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to have the capital of an independent state. In July, the State Department called Israeli construction over the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border, “provocative and counterproductive.” In August, the White House said “significant settlement expansion” poses “a serious and growing threat to the viability of a two state solution.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition fear that between the presidential election in November and Inauguration Day, President Obama could seek a way to try to enshrine U.S. parameters for a future peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Far worse in Netanyahu’s mind would be U.S. support for a resolution along those lines in the United Nations.
“There is no doubt in Israel that Obama wants to leave a legacy,” said former Israel diplomat Jacob Dayan, who was chief of staff to two foreign ministers. “A legacy is created in two ways — a comprehensive speech on the issue, which I am sure Israel will accept because speeches are nice and memorable, but not more than that, or an American U.N. Security Council Resolution on the issue. . . . That is Israel’s biggest fear.”
The latest censure was sparked by the Israeli government’s approval of housing units for residents of Amona, a settlement built on private Palestinian land that even Israel considers illegal.
Israel’s Supreme Court ordered that Amona be demolished by the end of the year, though members of the 40 Jewish families who live there have threatened to confront Israeli bulldozers. The Israeli government wants the Amona residents to move into the new houses they want to build in the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rachel.
Shvut Rachel itself was also an unauthorized settlement before it was legalized by Israel in 2012. The settlement was founded in 1991 in memory of Rachela Druk of Shilo, who was killed in a Palestinian attack. On the night of her funeral, young yeshiva students occupied the site. They first brought tents, then caravans.
Avi Roeh, chairman of the Yesha Council, which represents the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, told Israel Radio: “We saw how you managed matters in Egypt and Syria. The Americans have nothing to teach us in this regard.”
The Israeli settlements — with a population now of 400,000 Jews — are on land in the West Bank that the Palestinians want for a future state.
Netanyahu often says that Israel has not built a new settlement in 20 years — that the growth is only of new “neighborhoods” built beside existing settlements.
Critics of Israel’s settlement project say this is a ruse — that over and over, illegal outposts slowly but steadily become authorized settlements.
“All this is done in a very strategic way to remove Palestinians from the land and replace them with Israeli settlements,” said Sarit Michaeli of the human rights group B’Tselem.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the timing of the latest construction announcement was particularly troubling, coming weeks after the administration agreed in a memo of understanding to give Israel a record $38 billion in military aid over a decade and after Obama traveled to Israel to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres.
Critics of Israeli settlement policy, in Washington and Jerusalem, said the administration has not gone far enough. They contend that the Obama administration has done little to slow the building, land confiscations and demolitions of Palestinian structures.
“Strong words backed by zip,” tweeted Sarah Leah Whitson, an executive director at Human Rights Watch.
Morello reported form Washington. Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.