Israel is under increased pressure from the United States over settlement construction. In the past month, since Barack Obama was sworn in as U.S. president, Israel has received four official complaints from members of the new administration regarding various issues linked to West Bank settlements.
A senior government official in Jerusalem told Haaretz that the complaints represent a gradual increase in American pressure vis-a-vis settlement activity. "This is going to be one of the main issues that the Obama administration will be dealing with in the coming weeks and months," the official said. "It is not going to be easy to argue with them."
The American complaints were relayed to Jerusalem via senior officials in the State Department as well as the National Security Council, which seek clarifications and explanations from Israel.
The four separate complaints relate to the demolition of Palestinian-owned homes in East Jerusalem, reports of Israeli plans to construct additional housing in the E1 area, between Maaleh Adumim and Jerusalem, the relocation of the illegal outpost at Migron to a new, as-yet unbuilt neighborhood of the Adam settlement and to plans to build thousands of new residential units in the settlement of Efrat.
"Thus far," the Israeli official said, "the issue has been raised by senior officials, but it is going to go higher up the hierarchy. It is a safe bet that special envoy George Mitchell will raise the matter when he makes his next visit to the Middle East in a few weeks, after the Netanyahu government is sworn in."
There was an additional embarrassing incident between Jerusalem and Washington over the weekend, against the backdrop of comments by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against the demolition of Arab homes in East Jerusalem. Clinton said during her visit to Ramallah that house demolitions "do not help the peace process" and violate the spirit of the road map.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat responded by briefing foreign correspondents. According to the Washington Post, Barkat described Clinton's comments as "a lot of air" and claimed that Clinton had been misled by the Palestinians. "I totally reject the criticism," Barkat said. "It is a lot of air. There is no substance. Maybe it is because there is a new administration in the States. I am not willing to say the houses will remain houses. It is the wrong signal to send to people who break the law," he added.
In response to Barkat's criticism, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and sources close to Clinton were quick to relay strongly-worded protests to the Prime Minister's Office; they described Barkat's comments as "an insult" to the Secretary of State. On Friday afternoon, in a highly unusual step, the PMO issued a clarification in which Barkat claimed that his comments were taken out of context and that the articles in the U.S. press were 'inaccurate and incorrect."
According to the Prime Minister's Office, Barkat even claimed that his comments were not directed at Clinton but rather at the false Palestinian arguments. "We regret any implication that Secretary of State Clinton was in any way being criticized," read the statement. Clinton met briefly with Barkat during her visit to Israel last week, despite her aides' concerns that meeting with him could land her in hot water because of the disputed status of Jerusalem.
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