Barely 48 hours after U.S. diplomats delivered a sharp rebuke to the Israeli government over its latest plans to build hundreds of additional housing units in settlements inside Jerusalem, the Americans got their answer: Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced Thursday that 1,600 more units would be built in a similar settlement area of greater Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967.
The rebuff of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was jarring even by Israeli standards during the often tense Obama-Benjamin Netanyahu years.
The move suggests that either Mr. Yishai, leader of the Haredi Shas party, was accelerating things to suit his own constituency or, more likely, that Mr. Netanyahu found it necessary to offer the housing concession as a way to keep his coalition partner happy.
The U.S. criticism, received Tuesday, scorned the approval of 930 housing units announced last week for the community of Har Homa, an extensive development on a hilltop between the outskirts of southern Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
The missive said that Washington was “deeply concerned” by the approval of new settlement housing, adding that such “unilateral actions work against the efforts to resume direct negotiations,” something Israel has called on the Palestinian leadership to do, rather than pursue a bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations in September.
Interestingly, the 1,600 units announced Thursday for the settlement of Ramat Shlomo are the very ones that Israel put on the table for approval in March of 2010, just as U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden was arriving in Israel in an effort to restart peace talks.
That move, described by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as an insult, sent U.S.-Israeli relations into a deep freeze for several months.
Thursday’s approval of what’s referred to locally as the “Biden” housing will have its own chilling effect.
The Obama administration is “concerned about continuing Israeli action with respect to housing construction in East Jerusalem,” State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said.
“Unilateral action of this kind works against our effort to get folks back to the table,” Ms. Nuland said. “This kind of activity is concerning and doesn’t improve the environment.”
Officials in Israel’s Interior Ministry said actual building would not commence for some time, explaining there were “significant planning procedures” still pending.
“Israel thinks it is above international law,” said Saeb Erekat, head of the Palestinian negotiating team in a statement to reporters. “In the past few days, members of the international community, including all members of the Quartet [Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and the U.S.], condemned the expansion of the illegal settlement of Har Homa,” he added. “Israel has responded to this international consensus with intransigence and willful disregard.”
The veteran negotiator called on the United States and its partners to react strongly against the latest measures.
“The international community has a permanent responsibility to uphold international law, protect the Palestinian people, support the Palestinian State and hold Israel accountable for its persistent violations,” he said.
Israel purportedly annexed the occupied portions of Jerusalem shortly after the 1967 conflict, an occupation that has not been recognized by any other country.
Palestinians are concerned that chipping away at the parts of Jerusalem they hope will be the capital of a Palestinian state is undermining their dream and ruling out peaceful negotiations.
They are closing the door, warned Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the Israeli organization Peace Now.
“Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s actions destroy the chance of reaching any political solution in Jerusalem, and deal a fatal blow to Israel’s status on the eve of the UN Assembly meeting,” Mr. Oppenheimer said.
About 200,000 Jewish Israelis already live in the communities of occupied Jerusalem. Another 300,000 Israelis live in settlements throughout the occupied West Bank.
Some critics, such as Mr. Oppenheimer, suggest the Interior Minister is taking advantage of the current unrest in Israel over the high cost of housing in order to build housing – especially in religious neighbourhoods.
If so, the expansion may undermine the government’s own diplomatic efforts, coming just as Israel has been seeking U.S. assistance in pressing the Palestinian Authority to drop its campaign for statehood recognition at the United Nations.
Just on Wednesday, the day after Washington used the diplomatic stick against Israel, it turned the stick on the Palestinian Authority, pressing its leadership in near-threatening terms not to take their case to the United Nations.
“If the PA goes to the UN in September, it will make it harder for us to have the same relations with them as we had before, when it comes to aid and security training,” a U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told journalists Wednesday.
But Thursday’s announcement, along with another statement that a further 2,700 settlement units soon would be approved, may make Washington rethink its approach.