JERUSALEM – Israel signaled its intention Friday to build hundreds of new homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, provoking a new clash with the Obama administration and complicating a U.S. effort to restart Middle East peace talks this fall.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision, leaked to Israeli media and confirmed by an Israeli official, drew a swift rebuke from the White House. It came as U.S. special envoy George Mitchell was trying to coax a package of concessions from Israelis and Arabs that would enable President Barack Obama to launch a new peace initiative at the United Nations this month.
After months of resisting the administration’s demand to halt settlement growth, Netanyahu will consider a limited, temporary suspension, the official said; but it would not cover the new housing units or 2,500 others now being built on West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians. Nor will Netanyahu accept a U.S.-proposed halt to Jewish residential building in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, the official said.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
The Israeli leader’s stance underscores a weakness in the administration’s strategy as it pursues one of its most ambitious foreign policy goals. U.S. officials had hoped that Netanyahu would yield to the popular new American president’s demand for a total settlement freeze, helping Obama win equally dramatic gestures by Arab states and swiftly improving the climate for a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Instead, Netanyahu dug in his heels and rallied the Israeli public behind his argument that stopping all construction would unjustly disrupt “natural life” in growing settler communities.
The White House expressed “regret” over Israel’s new decision, saying such moves make it harder to create a climate for negotiations. The European Union’s foreign ministers and the head of the 22-nation Arab League also opposed it.