US denies ultimatum over West Bank settlements

Media reports claim Washington may not veto UN resolution on settlements if Israel ups construction after terror wave

The West Bank settlement of Ofra, in the Binyamin Region north of Jerusalem. (CC-BY-SA/Yakov/Wikimedia Commons)
The West Bank settlement of Ofra, in the Binyamin Region north of Jerusalem. (CC-BY-SA/Yakov/Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — The US State Department denied reports it issued Israel an ultimatum this week threatening not to veto a UN Security Council resolution declaring West Bank settlements illegal if Israel announced new settlement construction.

Deputy State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said that while his office was aware of such reports in the press, they were “false.”

“Our position on settlements is well known and hasn’t changed,” he said. “We convey it regularly to the Israeli Government. I know we don’t generally comment on private conversations, but I’d like to nip that story in the bud. We haven’t issued any kind of ultimatum on this.”

Toner emphasized that far from issuing any such ultimatum regarding a UN resolution, “there’s not even a resolution out there right now.”

At a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected calls by senior ministers for construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank in response to an increase in Palestinian terrorism.

According to Channel 2, Netanyahu refusal to authorize new construction was due to a purported Obama administration warning that the US wouldn’t necessarily veto a French-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Security Council.

The US has thus far been a staunch supporter of Israel at the UN, protecting it from condemnation in the 15-member council by using its veto power as a permanent member.

“We will not endanger our international support for some construction tender or for expanding construction in Itamar,” a senior source was quoted as saying.

Netanyahu reportedly told ministers from the pro-settlement Jewish Home party that new construction in the West Bank was liable to endanger Israeli settlers even more and complicate the situation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Following a three-hour meeting with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon late Tuesday, leaders of the Yesha Council umbrella group for settlements suggested diplomatic pressure against settlement building was acutely felt in the PMO.

“We weren’t told that there’s no building and there’s a freeze. We were told that there is an inability to approve and advance construction under current pressures,” council chairman Avi Roeh told reporters after the meeting. “Strategically, it’s a serious mistake not to approve construction; it will harm the settlement [project] and in the end cause harm to Jerusalem and the entire state of Israel,” he added.

“We presented our dissatisfaction with the current policy of the government when it comes to settlement,” Roeh said. “We raised the ethical and strategic issues linked to settlement. On this issue, sadly, we did not receive worthwhile answers,” but rather “answers that were partial and unsatisfactory. There was talk,” he explained, “about the difficulties the government faces, primarily abroad, in its ability to allow construction and planning.”

Yesha Council leaders, comprising local government heads from West Bank regional councils, plan to meet Wednesday to discuss future steps in their efforts to pressure the government to up its response to the terror wave.

In a response to the Channel 2 report, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel that the Prime Minister’s Office was “unaware of any American threats” to refrain from exercising its veto power in the Security Council.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have reached fever pitch in recent days, following weeks of clashes on the Temple Mount and a series of deadly terrorist attacks on Israelis.

Washington’s reported threat to not veto the motion at the UN came shortly after a Politico report which said US President Barack Obama had rejected multiple calls by a top Democratic senator that he speak out publicly against a Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations.

Obama’s refusal, the report said, “highlights how wide the gulf between the Obama administration and Israeli government has become.” The rebuff “unfolded in the context of a personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu that’s become highly toxic, poisoning US-Israeli relations more widely.”

In March, the administration signaled that it would reevaluate its automatic-veto policy at the UN, after Netanyahu asserted in a pre-election interview that there would be no Palestinian state during his tenure.

“We are currently reevaluating our approach but it doesn’t mean that we’ve made a decision regarding changing our position at the UN,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a briefing at the time, responding to reports that the US was considering lifting its veto on UN Security Council resolutions on Palestinian statehood.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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