The US State Department on Tuesday expressed concerns over an Israeli bill to legalize thousands of settler homes in the West Bank, calling the legislation “profoundly damaging.”
Israeli lawmakers gave the bill preliminary approval late Monday amid a chorus of domestic opposition and international criticism that it was an illegal land grab.
Strong supporters of the bill, including those who outright oppose a Palestinian state, rejoiced in the initial vote and said they hoped it could lead to eventual Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank.
“Enacting this law would be profoundly damaging to the prospects for a two-state solution,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“We’ve also been troubled by comments that we’ve heard by some political figures in Israel that this would be the first step in annexing parts of the West Bank.”
The bill must pass three more votes in parliament before it becomes law, with the first likely to be held on Wednesday.
“We’re deeply concerned about it,” Toner said.
“We hope that it does not become law. We certainly hope that changes or modifications can be made to it.”
The Palestinian Authority Foreign Ministry earlier called on the US to officially recognize the state of Palestine and support a UN resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank in response to the bill.
The so-called Regulation Bill, which was slammed by Israeli opponents as a “land grab” and has been harshly criticized by the US, EU and UN as a breach of international law, sailed through the Knesset in a preliminary reading, clearing its first legislative hurdle by a count of 60 MKs to 49. Israel’s attorney-general, Avichai Mandelblit, has warned that the bill breaches local and international law, and indicated that the Israeli High Court is likely to strike it down.
The Palestinians said in a statement they “welcomed” recent international criticism of Israeli settlements, “especially” by US Secretary of State John Kerry, before the preliminary approval of the Regulation Bill.
Kerry on Sunday harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing the Israeli leader of not taking the required risks to reach a two-state solution, and calling the settlements “an obstacle to peace.”
The Palestinian ministry called on the US to “translate its positions into practical steps that will save the two-state solution of peace and opportunity. This would include the immediate cessation of settlement building through the US recognizing the State of Palestine and supporting the draft resolution against settlements in the UN Security Council.”
One hundred and thirty-seven countries have already officially recognized the state of Palestine.
Kerry, however, also said Sunday that Washington would continue to oppose “any resolution that is unfair and biased against Israel.” Outgoing President Barack Obama is said to have been mulling various steps to cement his legacy on the peace process, but “there’s been no decision made about any kind of step that may or may not be taken in that regard,” Kerry said.
Originally designed to avert the court-ordered demolition of the Amona outpost by December 25, the Regulation Bill was initiated by lawmakers from the national-religious Jewish Home party. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of Jewish Home, hailed the bill’s approval as “a path of extending sovereignty to Judea and Samaria,” his party’s stated goal.
The bill’s current version no longer includes a controversial clause that would have allowed the overriding of a High Court ruling requiring Amona’s demolition, but will recognize other settlements built on private Palestinian land.
Attorney General Mandelblit, however, opposes the most recent version as well, which suggests that, if passed, it may not survive a challenge in the High Court.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now said the bill would legalize 55 outposts and 4,000 housing units in existing Jewish outposts and settlements in the West Bank, cast over some 8,000 dunams (3 square miles) of privately owned Palestinian plots.
Dov Lieber, Marissa Newman and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.