US warns East Jerusalem housing plans will ‘distance Israel from even its closest allies’

In strikingly bitter language, White House and State Department say move ‘will poison atmosphere,’ call into question Israel’s commitment to peace

An engineer surveying the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa in 2012. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
An engineer surveying the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa in 2012. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Using uncharacteristically harsh language, Washington officials launched a coordinated attack on Israeli plans to push forward new housing in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, saying the move would distance Israel from “even its closest allies” and raise questions about its commitment to seeking peace with Palestinians.

The nearly identical comments from State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki and White House spokesman Josh Earnest came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrapped up a meeting with US President Barack Obama during which he pitched for the US and Israel to work together to boost other Arab states’ involvement in the Palestinian peace process.

Psaki said the US was “deeply concerned” over Israel’s approval last week to advance the construction of some 2,500 housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos.

“This step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal and it would send a very troubling message if they proceed with tenders or construction,” Psaki said, adding the move would “call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement.”

“This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations,” she said, calling her own language “strong.”

At the White House, Earnest echoed Psaki’s language and said the issue was discussed between Obama and Netanyahu.

“This development will only draw condemnation from the international community,” Earnest said. “It also would call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”

The new 2,500 unit project is contentious because it would complete a band of Jewish areas that separate Jerusalem from nearby Bethlehem. The US has repeatedly criticized Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, casting it as damaging to efforts to secure an elusive peace accord with the Palestinians.

US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (screen capture: YouTube)
US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. (screen capture: YouTube)

He also condemned a recent move by a right-wing group to move Israelis into seven homes in an Arab neighborhood of the capital in the dead of night.

“The US condemns the recent occupation of residential buildings in the neighborhood of Silwan by people whose agenda provokes tensions,” Earnest said. “It only serves to escalate tensions.”

Appearing before reporters earlier, Obama and Netanyahu betrayed little of the US displeasure. While the two leaders have long had a tense relationship, each took a polite and cordial tone in their brief public remarks.

Still, areas of discord were evident, most notably Obama’s frustration with Palestinian civilian deaths in during the summer war in Gaza and Israel’s wariness of US-led nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Officials said much of Obama and Netanyahu’s private discussions centered on Iran. The US and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have until Nov. 24 to reach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, and all sides say significant gaps remain.

As Netanyahu arrived at the White House, city officials in Jerusalem announced the plans to move forward with the construction of homes in east Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos neighborhood. The announcement was circulated by an anti-settlement watchdog group, though the officials said the decision was made two weeks ago and had no connection to Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama.

Psaki refused to say if the US would vote against a Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations Security Council, saying the US first needed to study the draft petition, which was released Wednesday.

However, she reiterated Washington’s position against unilateral moves by Ramallah at the UN.

“We have made our concerns known to the Palestinians about their desires, their threats and their decisions to go forward unilaterally,” she said.

Givat Hamatos neighborhood (screen grab from YouTube)
Givat Hamatos neighborhood (photo credit: YouTube screen grab)

At their joint press conference, Netanyahu told Obama he was committed to a two-state solution.

Obama, speaking alongside Netanyahu, said a change in the status quo was needed between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Hours before the meeting, a draft UN Security Council resolution was circulated by the Palestinians calling for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem by 2016. The paper also called for “a just resolution” of the status of Jerusalem as the capital of two states, and of the Palestinian refugee problem.

The US is widely expected to veto the move.

Joshua Davidovich and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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