White House ‘deeply dismayed’ as US keeps heat on Israel over settlement approvals
Spokesperson echoes frustration voiced earlier by State Department, as administration announces that it opposes draft Security Council resolution that offers similar condemnation
Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent
The Biden administration on Thursday gradually escalated its public outcry over Israel’s announcement that it will legalize nine settlement outposts and advance plans for some 10,000 new homes in the West Bank while revealing that it does not support a proposed UN Security Council resolution that expresses similar condemnation.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre expressed Washington’s “deep dismay” over the move in a statement to reporters during a daily press briefing.
“The United States strongly opposes these unilateral measures, which exacerbate tensions, harm trust between the parties and undermine the geographic viability of the two-state solution,” Jean-Pierre said on Thursday.
“Settlement expansion and construction in the heart of the West Bank, including the legalization of outposts, create facts on the ground that undermine a two-state solution. It’s been longstanding US policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations that settlements are counterproductive to the cause of peace,” she continued. “The Biden administration maintains this firm opposition to the settlement expansion.”
Her statement came after three straight days of angry condemnations from US officials earlier in the week.
The administration began on Sunday by issuing an anonymous statement in the name of a senior official who expressed their deep concern over the issue, while noting that the US was looking to receive more information, given that the cabinet decision had been made just hours earlier.
On Monday, a relatively rare statement was issued in US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s name, which noted that the Israeli decision went against longstanding US policy maintained by both Democratic and Republican administrations in addition to being “detrimental to Israel’s long-term security.”
The following day, the US organized a joint statement by Blinken and the foreign ministers of the UK, France, Germany and Italy expressing similar objections to the move, which the foreign diplomats said further hampered efforts to preserve a two-state solution — something the current Israeli government does not support.
Despite its opposition to the Israeli announcement — which the cabinet framed as a response to a series of deadly terror attacks in Jerusalem that killed 11 Israelis — the Biden administration has spent the last several days trying to block a Palestinian effort to pass a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the move and demanding an immediate halt to settlement construction, three UN diplomats told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
The US faces an uphill battle though as the Palestinian Mission to the UN managed to convince the UAE, which sits on the top panel to draft the resolution.
Unlike some previous initiatives that were wider in scope and included language that the US has opposed, the draft obtained by The Times of Israel is relatively narrow, largely focusing on settlement activity, possibly giving the US less of a reason to employ its veto.
There are several lines that touch on other issues, such as the importance of maintaining the status quo at Jerusalem holy sites and a call to refrain from “provocative actions, incitement, inflammatory rhetoric and hate speech.” It does not mention the specific settlement plans announced by Israel or the recent terror attacks in Jerusalem.
On Thursday, the US came out publicly against the proposal, with State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel telling reporters during a briefing that the measure “is unhelpful in supporting the conditions necessary to advance negotiations for a two-state solution.”
“We don’t view the UN as the most practical and useful forum for discussing this issue. This is something that the two sides need to discuss and engage and negotiate and work on among themselves,” he added.
The US Mission to the UN is working to convince fellow Security Council members to suffice with a symbolic joint statement to the same effect, rather than pursuing a binding resolution, the UN diplomats said.
The Palestinian Mission has rejected the US proposal and is pushing for the resolution to be brought to a vote on Monday when the Security Council holds its monthly session where members are briefed on developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Talks on the resolution are ongoing, though, and the text could well change as well as the timing for the vote, according to the three UN diplomats.
The Biden administration has blocked a handful of Security Council initiatives criticizing Israel or calling for calm, insisting that the UN is not the proper platform for adjudicating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while also noting that the body singles out Israel too frequently.
The last time a resolution against Israel on settlements was passed by the Security Council was in December 2016. Fourteen of the body’s 15 members backed the measure while the US, under then-US president Barack Obama, decided to abstain in order to allow the resolution to pass.
According to the three UN diplomats, Israel is simultaneously lobbying members of the Security Council not to back the resolution but faces an uphill battle given that its policies in the West Bank face near-unanimous opposition. Support from nine of the 15 members is needed to bring the matter to a vote.
The outposts that Israel plans to legalize are Avigayil, Beit Hogla, Givat Harel, Givat Arnon, Mitzpe Yehuda, Malachei Hashalom, Asahel, Sde Boaz and Shacharit.
To legalize the outposts, the government will have to prove that they were established on what Israel considers to be state land. This will likely be difficult, given that many of them, including almost all of Sde Boaz and Givat Harel, were built on private Palestinian land.
The High Court of Justice is likely to object to such legalizations, making the process drag on for months, if not years. However, the new hardline government is simultaneously advancing a series of contentious bills that would significantly restrict the ability of the judiciary to overrule such cabinet decisions. This is partially why settler leaders are among the most ardent advocates of plans to overhaul the judiciary.
One of the outposts, Givat Arnon, is located on land designated as an Israel Defense Forces firing zone in the northern West Bank, exposing a discrepancy between how the government treats unauthorized Israeli and Palestinian construction, given that the state has moved to demolish Palestinian villages in an area known as Masafer Yatta that was also designated as a military firing zone.
While the international community considers all settlements illegal, Israel differentiates between settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land. However, outposts are sometimes established with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the 100-plus unrecognized communities as a result.
Also on Thursday, the US Embassy in Jerusalem’s Office of Palestinian Affairs issued a condemnation of an IDF soldier’s assault of a Palestinian activist in Hebron earlier this week.
The soldier was filmed telling Issa Amro that he could not pass through a street as the activist led a tour of the divided West Bank city for a group including a prominent American journalist. The soldier then demanded Amro delete the video he was filming of the altercation. When Amro refused, the soldier grabbed, choked and kicked him in front of the New Yorker reporter, whose clip of the altercation has been viewed over 1 million times.
The IDF has since reprimanded the soldier and given him a 10-day prison sentence, after which his commanders will decide whether to permanently dismiss him from a combat role.
“We condemn aggression towards civil society and the attack on Issa Amro. We note the IDF has said it disciplined the soldier involved. Authorities must exercise restraint towards civilians in the West Bank, not resort to disproportionate violence anywhere, including at checkpoints,” the US Office of Palestinian Affairs tweeted.