Sunday, 14 March 2010

US official criticises Israeli settlement plans

Israel's latest announcement of further settlement building is so controversial that even the normally loyal, supportive US administration is voicing criticisms. On Tuesday major plans were announced for thousands of homes to be built in Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The previous day the Israeli defence ministry gave the green light to further construction in a settlement on the occupied West Bank, granting approval for the building of 112 new flats on the settlement near Bethlehem. This followed an announcement the previous week of work on constructing 600 flats in East Jerusalem.

David Axelrod, a senior aide to President Obama, has described the latest, most far-reaching, plans as an "affront" to the US, telling NBC's Meet the Press: "This was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region. For this announcement to come at that time was very destructive."

The timing angered Axelrod and, reportedly, other US officials because it was on the eve of US Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the Middle East for Israel-Palestine talks. Hilary Clinton, US Secretary State, called it "an insult to the US" and expressed her disapproval in a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Although Israel has agreed to slow construction of settlements in the West Bank, it has refused to halt its plans for East Jerusalem. Captured in 1967, in the Arab-Israeli war which Israel won overwhelmingly, the territory is regarded by the Netanyahu regime as entirely its own. Unsurprisingly, Palestinian representatives withdrew from planned talks when Tuesday's expansionist proposals were announced.

The Americans' reaction is indicative of how isolated Israel is in refusing to compromise over the disputed East Jerusalem and stop settlement building. The territory is regarded by the international community as occupied. Constructing Jewish-only settlements on the land is deemed illegal under international law. The plans already announced, however, may yet be surpassed, as it is thought Israel wants to go much further. This is despite it being widely acknowledged that no negotiations are possible without a halt to the settlement building.

The announcements in the last couple of weeks are thought to be an attempt at shoring up support from the Israeli hard right. But the tensions with the Americans cause difficulties for Netanyahu, in particular because he is reliant on US backing if Israel ever attacks Iran. He has therefore felt obliged to express regret, if only at the timing of the announcements.

This article also appears at Counterfire.

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