Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied telling the residents of the Amona outpost in the West Bank — slated for evacuation in December by court order — that US President Barack Obama poses “an existential danger” to the settlement enterprise.
Channel 2 television on Wednesday evening quoted him saying, at a meeting last week: “It isn’t just Amona, in the coming period, between the elections in the United States and the end of Obama’s term, the entire settlement enterprise is in existential danger.”
The Prime Minister’s Office swiftly denied the report.
“The prime minister did not make the comments attributed to him, but noted that in the past there were presidents who, at the end of their terms, pushed initiatives that were inconsistent with Israeli interests,” a statement from his office said.
“The prime minister added that he hopes the situation will not repeat itself and he anticipates that the US will not change its longstanding policy, for decades, to prevent anti-Israel decisions at the UN Security Council.”
An unnamed source present at last week’s meeting quoted Netanyahu, slightly differently, as saying that “unwise behavior” by Israel during Obama’s final weeks in office was likely “to endanger the entire settlement enterprise,” Haaretz reported. This report said the meeting took place at the Prime Minister’s Office, lasted two and a half hours, and involved Likud activists, including some from Amona and the nearby settlement of Ofra.
The activists, who initiated the meeting and sought options to prevent the dismantling of Amona, were told by Netanyahu that he had to take into account the interests of the entire settlement movement, Haaretz reported, and that the final weeks of the presidency would be a particularly sensitive period. “We have to act wisely,” Netanyahu reportedly said, “and you of all people should understand this.”
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.
Meanwhile, the right-wing government has been posed with a new dilemma with the Amona evacuation, which the High Court of Justice ordered completed by the end of the year and which the attorney general has warned cannot be circumvented.
Earlier this month, Jerusalem and Washington sparred publicly over a plan to build some 300 homes for Jews in the West Bank, 98 of which would be reserved for the Amona evacuees.
The White House on October 5 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 had died a week earlier, 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.”
An Israel official on October 6 deepened the 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 Obama to take anti-Israel actions in the final weeks of his presidency.
Speaking at the time 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 Netanyahu has not responded to the US criticism.
But the senior source told Channel 2 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.
The TV report said cabinet ministers had been taken aback by the ferocity of the US reaction.
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 on October 1 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.