PM to Kerry: New West Bank homes only if no other solution for outpost evacuees

Netanyahu speaks with US secretary of state as Washington fumes over recently announced construction plans

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, Italy, June 27, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Rome, Italy, June 27, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Secretary of State John Kerry Saturday that planned new Israeli construction in the West Bank that has come under American criticism is intended for families evacuated from a nearby illegal outpost, and will go ahead only “if no other solution were found.”

Government sources said Netanyahu spoke with Kerry on the phone to discuss various regional matters.

In recent weeks Netanyahu has met with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and various legal authorities to discuss possible solutions for the outpost’s evacuees.

Israel recently approved the construction of new West Bank housing units for the homeowners of the illegal outpost 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 US sharply criticized the announcement and, according to a Channel 2 report Thursday, was particularly infuriated that it came so soon after the Obama administration agreed to 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 Shimon Peres last Friday.

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, including through the UN Security Council by not using the US veto for any anti-Israel resolutions.

The TV report said cabinet ministers had been taken aback by the ferocity of the US reaction, after the White House on Wednesday accused Israel of a betrayal of trust over the new construction 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.”

On Thursday, an Israeli official deepened the latest dispute 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 to Channel 2 news, the unnamed “senior political source” insisted that the building plans did not constitute a new settlement, and did not breach any commitments made by Israel to the United States.

The “disproportionate” US criticism “is an alibi for one-sided actions being planned by Obama,” the source was quoted as 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 stressed that the comments did not constitute an official response from the government.

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.

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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