WASHINGTON – In a striking public rebuke, the Obama administration warned Israel on Wednesday that plans for a controversial new housing project in east Jerusalem would distance Israel from “even its closest allies” and raise questions about its commitment to seeking peace with Palestinians.
The harsh criticism came just hours after President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president privately raised his concerns with Netanyahu though the two leaders made no mention of the matter in their public comments to reporters.
“This development will only draw condemnation from the international community,” Earnest said. “It also would call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu pushed back against the criticism, according to reporters traveling with him Wednesday, saying that people should have all the information before making such statements. He also said that while Obama did raise the issue of settlements in their meeting, the discussion did not focus on specific cases.
An Israeli official confirmed the accuracy of Netanyahu’s comments to his traveling press corps. The official would discuss the matter only on condition of anonymity.
The new 2,500 unit project that stoked U.S. anger is contentious because it would complete a band of Jewish areas that separate Jerusalem from nearby Bethlehem. The U.S. has repeatedly criticized Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, casting it as damaging to efforts to secure an elusive peace accord with the Palestinians.
The White House also condemned what it called the recent occupation of residential buildings in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem where several hundred hard-line Israeli settlers have moved in recent years. Earnest called the move “provocative” and said it would “escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions have already been high.”
Appearing before reporters earlier, Obama and Netanyahu showed little of the U.S. displeasure projected by the White House spokesman, as well as officials at the State Department. While the two leaders have long had a tense relationship, each took a polite and cordial tone in their brief public remarks.
Still, areas of discord were evident, most notably Obama’s frustration with Palestinian civilian deaths during the summer war in Gaza and Israel’s wariness of U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Sitting alongside Netanyahu, Obama said leaders must “find ways to change the status quo so that both Israel citizens are safe in their own homes, and schoolchildren in their schools, from the possibility of rocket fire but also that we don’t have the tragedy of Palestinian children being killed as well.”
More than 2,100 Palestinians – the vast majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – and more than 70 Israelis were killed during the 50-day war in Gaza.
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