WASHINGTON — An unusually harsh White House statement on an Israeli settlement construction project suggests both a widening rift between the White House and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a deep freeze of the Obama administration’s Mideast peace initiative.
The White House lost no time Tuesday in expressing its “dismay” at Israeli approval earlier in the day of a 900-unit expansion of the Gilo settlement in Jerusalem. The housing for Jewish residents would be built on West Bank land Israel occupied in 1967 and subsequently annexed to Jerusalem.
“At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.
The statement also said the US “objects” to other Israeli actions in Jerusalem “related to housing,” including a pattern of evictions of Arab residents and demolitions of Palestinians homes. The administration had refrained from going public with its criticisms when tensions flared recently in East Jerusalem over Israeli practices. But Israel’s disregard for US pressures on the Gilo project appeared to have prompted the administration’s public blast.
President Obama’s Mideast envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, asked Israeli officials in London Monday to halt the Gilo decision, according to diplomatic sources, but the decision went ahead anyway.
That latest White House effort and the uncharacteristically tough statement that followed indicated both the growing frustration with Israel and an administration picking the wrong battles, some Mideast experts say.
“The Israelis have been saying for 30 years that this land [Gilo] is part of the capital of Israel and as such ‘It’s none of your business,’ ” says Sam Lewis, a former US ambassador to Israel. “So the administration is undoubtedly angry, but they should have known that the Israelis are going to turn them down on this.”
Obama started out his administration calling for a settlement freeze to allow for a relaunching of peace talks. By this fall he had softened his position by calling for Israeli “restraint” on settlements.
But Mr. Netanyahu responded with a plan that still allowed for expansion of existing settlements, and by the time the two leaders met at the White House earlier this month, the atmosphere was called “frosty” in reports on the meeting, and the two leaders were said to have “talked past each other.”
So what else is new? some observers ask.
Ambassador Lewis, now an advisor to the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for a two-state solution, says such rifts have marked the US-Israeli relationship for decades.
“There’s nothing unprecedented about this kind of language, it’s been used a thousand times and by every administration” to varying degrees, he says.
The only possible objective he sees in such a statement is to buoy Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has recently said he would not seek reelection next year.
“The tougher they sound in public, the more of a lift it gives to Abbas,” Lewis says.
Still, the lack of any progress from the nine-month Obama peace initiative means it will be back to the drawing board, Lewis says. “After they announce their decision on Afghanistan,” he adds, they’re going to have to sit down and rethink the overall strategy.”