Senior US official blames settlements for talks impasse

Susan Rice, echoing John Kerry, says US does not accept legitimacy of continued Israeli construction in West Bank

US National Security Advisor Susan Rice (AP/Craig Ruttle/File)
US National Security Advisor Susan Rice (AP/Craig Ruttle/File)

A top White House official on Thursday blamed Israeli settlement building for tensions between Jerusalem and Ramallah, which have threatened to sink US-brokered peace talks.

Echoing Palestinian complaints, National Security Adviser and former US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice’s remarks to a Washington think tank came a day after lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat resigned for what he said was a lack of Israeli integrity, as ostensibly demonstrated by continued building activity in the West Bank.

“We have seen increased tensions on the ground. Some of this is a result of recent settlement announcements. So let me reiterate: The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Middle East Institute, echoing similar comments made by US Secretary of State John Kerry last week.

However, she said the US was still committed to pushing forward with peace talks and reiterated the US position that a “negotiated solution was the only path to peace.”

The Housing Ministry’s announcement Tuesday that tenders for some 20,000 settlement units, including in the controversial E1 corridor, were in the works, drew sharp US and international reaction, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to order that these plans be pulled back.

The US-Israeli disagreement over settlements also underlined a growing spat between the two allies as officials continued to spar this week over the Geneva deal negotiated by world powers and Tehran last weekend, which was not signed due to French reservations. Talks will resume November 20.

Netanyahu has vehemently opposed the “bad deal” with Iran and warned that it could lead to war.

“There are not just two possibilities on the Iranian issue: A bad deal — or war. This is incorrect. There is a third possibility — and that is continuing the pressure of sanctions,” Netanyahu said in the Knesset Thursday. “I would even say that a bad deal is liable to lead to the second, undesired, result.”

Earlier in the week, the White House also warned of the dangers of war with Iran — should Congress vote for new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Rice’s remarks came just a week after Kerry made similar comments in a rare but scathing public critique of Israeli policies in the West Bank.

On an official visit to discuss Iran and to try to salvage the faltering peace talks last week, Kerry gave an interview to Channel 2 news in which he blasted settlements as “illegitimate” and warned that if current peace talks fail, Israel could see a Third Intifada and growing international isolation, and that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions would increase.

“Let me ask you something. How, if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace, and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in a place that will eventually be Palestine? So it sends a message that perhaps you’re not really serious,” Kerry said.

In response, an unnamed official quoted by Channel 2 said Israel would not “give in to the intimidation tactics” of the secretary, and would not compromise on its vital security needs. The official also reportedly noted that Kerry’s comments would not “encourage” the Palestinians to compromise.

Under heavy pressure from the US, Israelis and Palestinians resumed peace negotiations in July, after a three-year hiatus.

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