An Israel official on Thursday deepened the latest dispute with the Obama administration over settlement-building by charging that “disproportionate criticism” from Washington over the latest construction plans is “an alibi” to cover plans by President Barack Obama to take anti-Israel actions in the final weeks of his presidency.
Speaking to Channel 2 news, the unnamed “senior political source” insisted that newly announced plans to build some 300 homes for Jews in the West Bank do not constitute a new settlement, and do not breach any commitments made by Israel to the United States.
The TV report stressed that the comments did not constitute an official response from the government, and noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not responded to the US criticism.
The White House on Wednesday accused Israel of a betrayal of trust over the new plans. “We did receive public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this announcement,” said press secretary Josh Earnest. “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern as well.”
In a similarly strongly worded statement, the State Department said Israel’s “recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank.” Invoking the name of Israel’s former president who died last week, spokesman Mark Toner added: “[I]t is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the US and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two state solution that he so passionately supported.”
But the senior source told Channel 2 Thursday that the building plans breached no commitments, did not constitute a new settlement, and would not bring more settlers into the West Bank, since the construction was for new homes for settlers who are to be evicted from Amona, an illegal outpost scheduled for demolition on the orders of the Supreme Court.
The “disproportionate” US criticism “is an alibi for one-sided actions being planned by Obama,” the source was quoted saying, “even though Obama pledged to Netanyahu that he won’t take any one-sided actions concerning Israel” in the final weeks of his presidency.
Israeli government members have been worried that Obama, before leaving office in January but after a successor is chosen in November, may seek to impose or advance a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or at least set out parameters for how it should be solved.
The TV report said cabinet ministers had been taken aback by the ferocity of the US reaction.
However, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Thursday evening she did not think that the US administration would take any “mean-spirited” steps against the Jewish state, such as deciding not to veto anti-Israel resolutions at the UN Security Council, in response to the building plans.
Earlier Thursday, however, Shaked also called the condemnation from Washington “disproportionate.” Shaked, from the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, said the US should focus its condemnation on Syria “rather than criticizing where Israel builds houses.”
“When the Middle East is in flames, when on the borders of Jordan and Syria dozens of men, women and children are slaughtered,” making a statement like this “over a decision by the Defense Ministry to build a few dozen homes for the residents of Amona is completely out of proportion,” she told Army Radio. “I think we need to build in Judah and Samaria,” she added, using the biblical term for the West Bank.
Shaked said that while Jerusalem cares what the US administration thinks, it has to act in its own best interests. “The US is a good friend, we are partners and we pay attention to what they say. But at the end of the day Israel has to do what is best for [the country],” she said.
The US leadership, according to the Channel 2 report, has been particularly infuriated at the announcement of new building so soon after the Obama Administration agreed a record-breaking 10-year military assistance package for Israel, and right after Obama came to Israel, in a show of respect and solidarity, for the funeral of former president Peres last Friday.
The TV report also quoted Amona residents saying the planned new housing was no solution for them, since it would take four years to build and they are scheduled to be evicted in just a few months.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry earlier rejected the harsh criticism from the United States. “The 98 housing units approved in Shiloh do not constitute a ‘new settlement’,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shiloh and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint.”
Israel last week approved the construction of the new housing units for the homeowners of Amona ahead of its court-ordered evacuation. The plan calls for two phases of construction, with a further 200 units to be approved after a first round of 98 homes is completed.
The Foreign Ministry also reiterated Israel’s stance that the settlements are not the main cause of the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.
“The real obstacle to peace is not the settlements – a final status issue that can and must be resolved in negotiations between the parties — but the persistent Palestinian rejection of a Jewish state in any boundaries,” the statement said.
Agencies contributed to this report.