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U.S. Blasts Israel's Plan for New West Bank Settlement, Says Netanyahu Broke His Word

In unusually harsh statement, State Department ties timing of construction plans to signing of aid deal. U.S. official says White House was livid over timing of approval of plans, which seek to resettle residents of Amona.

U.S. President Barack Obama stands next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016.
U.S. President Barack Obama stands next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, September 30, 201 Emil Salman

The U.S. administration published an unusually harsh statement on Wednesday against a plan to build an alternative settlement for residents of the illegal outpost of Amona.

The statement, signed by Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the State Department, drew an unusual linkage between the signing of the defense aid agreement with Israel and criticism of settlement building.

Toner stressed that the U.S. views advancement of the plan as a violation of a commitment by Netanyahu's government not to establish any new settlements in the West Bank.

The White House later further escalated the criticism, as Josh Ernest said that the decision constitutes a violation of a commitment undertaken by the Israeli government to the U.S. administration, adding that this isn't how friends behave.
 
"We had public assurances from the Israeli government that contradict this new announcement – so when you talk about how friends treat each other – this is also a source of concern. There is a lot of disappointment and great concern here at the White House," he said.

The criticism comes against the backdrop of the Civil Administration Planning Commission's decision last Wednesday to approve a plan for the construction of 98 housing units in the new settlement to be established next to the Shvut Rachel settlement.

Amona, an unauthorized Israeli outpost in the West Bank, east of the Palestinian town of Ramallah. Under an Israeli Supreme Court order, the government must tear down the outpost by the end of 2016. May 18, 2016 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Oded Balilty, AP

According to the plan, it will be possible to build up to 300 housing units and an industrial zone. The NRG web site and Channel 2 were the first to publish the decision. The new settlement, which settlers say is only a neighborhood of the existing settlement of Shvut Rachel, can provide housing for residents of the illegal outposts of Amona, who are expected to be evicted by the end of December.

A senior U.S. official said that the White House boiled with anger at the advancement of the plan and even more at the timing of the decision – just a week after the signing of the military aid agreement by which the U.S. will give Israel $38 billion for a decade, and the day of the death of former president Shimon Peres, whose funeral was attended by President Barack Obama.

A large part of American anger was due to the administration seeing the step as a violation of a commitment Netanyahu gave Obama in 2009 that Israel would not build any new settlements. In his speech at Bar-Ilan that year, Netanyahu said he agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state and added: "The territorial issues will be discussed in a permanent agreement. Till then we have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements."

Harm to two-state solution

The statement was unusual both in its length of more than 300 words, and in content, using strong language to express U.S. objections to advancement of the plan.

"We strongly condemn the Israeli government's recent decision to advance a plan that would create a significant new settlement deep in the West Bank, State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said.

Toner said that the new settlement would damage even further the chances of implementing a two-state solution.

"This approval contradicts previous public statements by the Government of Israel that it had no intention of creating new settlements. And this settlement's location deep in the West Bank, far closer to Jordan than Israel, would link a string of outposts that effectively divide the West Bank and make the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more remote."

Toner said the decision to advance the establishment of a new settlement raises doubts as to the seriousness of Israel's intentions with respect to the two-state solution.

"Israelis must ultimately decide between expanding settlements and preserving the possibility of a peaceful two state solution. Proceeding with this new settlement is another step towards cementing a one-state reality of perpetual occupation that is fundamentally inconsistent with Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. Such moves will only draw condemnation from the international community and distance Israel from many of its partners."

One of the statement's clauses referred to the defense aid agreement. Its wording was most extraordinary, for through the years the U.S. has avoided creating any linkage between defense aid to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the settlement construction issue.

"It is deeply troubling, in the wake of Israel and the U.S. concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel's security, that Israel would take a decision so contrary to its long term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians," Toner added.

The State Department's statement also referred to the timing of the decision – the day of former President Shimon Peres' death, saying:

"Furthermore, it is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of President Shimon Peres, and leaders from the U.S. and other nations prepared to honor one of the great champions of peace, plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two state solution that he so passionately supported."

Lawmaker Michal Rozin of the left-wing Meretz party accused Netanyahu of putting Israel's essential ties with the U.S. at risk for the sake of settlement building.

"The linkage between the settlement enterprise and the defense aid agreement warns of future danger. Let's not fall in Netanyahu's trap," Rozin said.

"Strategic ties with the U.S. are not self-understood and if the government keeps spitting in their faces then apparently we will soon be facing a risk to our security such as we have never seen before," Rozin added.

Zionist Union lawmaker Erel Margalit said "Netanyahu's political interests have once again triumphed over Israel's defense interests."

"Netanyahu is turning Israel into a hostage of his own political interests. Again he violates an international commitment with a decision that widens the rift with the U.S. and the rest of the world."

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro spoke on Sunday with Israel's acting national security adviser Jacob Nagel, confronting him with the decision to move forward with plans for the construction of a new settlement for those to be removed from the Amona structures.

A senior American source who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that Shapiro told Nagel that the U.S. considers it unacceptable that in order to solve the illegality of the Amona outpost, the Israeli government has created a much larger problem.

Shapiro stressed to Nagel that despite Israel's claims that the plans are only to expand an already existing settlement, the U.S. recognizes the action as the creation of a new settlement, which contradicts commitments made by Netanyahu to the U.S. government.