The US on Tuesday blasted as “provocative and counterproductive” a bill passed by the Knesset revoking parts of a law that authorized the evacuation of four northern West Bank settlements in 2005, arguing that the legislation flew in the face of Israeli commitments to the US.
In a lengthy statement at the beginning of the daily press briefing, State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said the US is “extremely troubled” by the legislation’s passage, noting that one of the four towns to which the law opens the door for resettlement, Homesh, was built on private Palestinian land.
It was the latest point of tension between the Biden administration and the new hardline Israeli government, which has entered the crosshairs of the international community on a near-daily basis over its policies on the Palestinians. Joining the US in condemning the law passed Monday were the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, the United Nations and the European Union.
“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. 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,” he said.
“The US strongly encourages Israel to refrain from allowing the return of settlers to the area covered by the legislation,” Patel continued. “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.”
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.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman called the law “a violation of the resolutions of international legitimacy” and a UN Security Council resolution from 2016 declaring that settlements “no legal validity,” according to a statement carried by the PA’s official Wafa news agency.
The statement quoted Nabil Abu Rudeineh as saying Israel “insists on defying international law and works to sabotage international efforts exerted to deescalate the situation and reduce tension.”
He also urged countries, particularly the US, to put pressure on Israel “and force it to stop all unilateral measures that violate international law and all signed agreements.”
Jordan’s foreign ministry also charged that the move was a “flagrant violation of international law” and breached the UN measure. It stressed “the need for efforts to deescalate tensions” and to work for a “just, comprehensive and lasting peace.”
The ministry emphasized Amman’s opposition to Israeli “unilateral measures,” including settlement expansion, seizures of Palestinian land and the displacement of Palestinians from their homes.
The EU’s foreign policy arm released a statement calling for the Knesset to reverse the legislation, which it said was “counterproductive to deescalation efforts, and hampers the possibility to pursue confidence-building measures and create a political horizon for dialogue.”
The bloc noted that Israel — in the presence of US, Egyptian, and Jordanian officials — earlier this week reaffirmed its pledge to the Palestinian Authority to refrain from advancing settlement plans for four months and from advancing the legalization of West Bank outposts for six months.
That promise, and an accompanying Palestinian promise to freeze unilateral actions that are opposed by Israel, were aimed at lowering Israel-Palestinian tensions that frequently simmer around Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday.
“The EU considers settlements as illegal under international law. They constitute a major obstacle to peace and threaten the viability of the two-state solution. The Gaza Disengagement Law of 2005, and its articles concerning [the] northern West Bank, was an important step towards a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The decision of the Knesset is a clear step back,” the statement said.
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the law’s passage a “disappointment,” adding that “all settlement activity is unhelpful to the peace process, and this is part and parcel of that.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.