The Biden administration summoned Israel’s ambassador to the US to the State Department for an unscheduled meeting on Tuesday in a rare move by the Biden administration aimed at escalating its protest against the Knesset’s passage of a law that will allow the resettlement of evacuated areas of the northern West Bank, a US official told The Times of Israel.
A readout issued by the US after Ambassador Mike Herzog’s meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the American official “conveyed US concern” regarding the aspects of the 2005 Disengagement Law that the Knesset voted to rescind, including the prohibition on establishing settlements in the northern West Bank.
The two diplomats also “discussed the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions leading into the Ramadan, Passover, and Easter holidays,” the State Department said in an apparent reference to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s claim earlier this week that the Palestinian people are an “invention” — a claim the US condemned separately on Monday. Earlier this month, Smotrich called to “wipe out” a Palestinian town in additional comments that drew US criticism. He later apologized.
The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment on the meeting.
While the State Department readout did not characterize Tuesday’s meeting as a formal summoning or dressing down of Herzog, a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that this was effectively the reason for the sit-down.
This marked the first time in over a decade that an Israeli envoy in Washington has faced such a summons, marking a further deterioration in relations between the Biden administration and the hard-line Netanyahu government.
Hours earlier, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel opened the daily press briefing with a lengthy statement condemning the Knesset vote revoking parts of the Disengagement Law, arguing that the move flew in the face of Israeli commitments to the US.
The new law, which passed its final plenum readings overnight, repeals the clauses of the Disengagement Law that banned Israelis from the area where the settlements of Homesh, Ganim, Kadim and Sa-Nur once stood.
Patel said the US is “extremely troubled” by the legislation, noting that one of the four towns to which the law opens the door for resettlement, Homesh, was built on private Palestinian land.
“We have been clear that advancing settlements is an obstacle to peace and the achievement of a two-state solution. This certainly includes creating new settlements, building or legalizing outposts, or allowing building of any kind on private Palestinian land located deep in the West Bank or adjacent to Palestinian communities — all of which would be facilitated by this legal change,” Patel said.
The law “represents a clear contradiction of understandings the Israeli government made to the United States,” he continued, pointing to a letter then-prime minister Ariel Sharon sent to then-US president George W. Bush some 20 years ago in which the premier committed to evacuating the four northern West Bank settlements in order to make room for more Palestinian territorial contiguity in the area. In exchange, Bush would go on to offer his own written recognition of the need for land swaps in a future peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, allowing the so-called settlement blocs closer to the Green Line to remain under Israeli control.
Patel said the law passed by the Knesset is inconsistent with the commitments Israel made to Bush, the commitments the current Israeli government has made to the Biden administration and the commitments it made to participating countries at the Sharm el-Sheikh regional summit on Sunday, where Jerusalem and Ramallah agreed to act in order to deescalate tensions.
“Just two days ago, Israel reaffirmed its commitment to stop any discussion of any new settlements for four months and to stop the authorization of outposts for six months,” Patel said. “Coming at a time of heightened tensions, the legislative changes announced today are particularly provocative and counterproductive to efforts to restore some measure of calm as we head into Ramadan, Passover and the Easter holidays.”
“The US strongly encourages Israel to refrain from allowing the return of settlers to the area covered by the legislation,” Patel said. “It is all the more concerning that such a significant piece of legislation passed with just 31 votes out of an assembly of 120 members.”