Tensions between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the administration of US President Barack Obama appear to be ratcheting up again this week as Washington leads international criticism of plans to build some new apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem.
On Monday, Israeli planning authorities approved the construction of 1,300 new apartments in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Har Homa and Ramot, where tens of thousands of Jews already live.
The Palestinian Authority predictably decried the approval, and demanded the international community respond. Obama did not hesitate to answer that call, telling a press conference in Jakarta, Indonesia that “this kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations.”
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also added her voice saying that Europe was “extremely concerned” about the new Jewish homes, and insisting that “the decision should be reversed.”
Netanyahu blasted Israel’s critics for making a mountain out of a molehill, for grossly exaggerating the issue.
“You are talking about a handful of apartments that really don’t affect the map at all contrary to impressions that might be perceived from certain news reports. So it’s a minor issue that might be turned to a major issue,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Fox News.
The US State Department responded on Tuesday by justifying Palestinian outrage over the building of Jewish homes in the Israeli capital.
State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley suggested Netanyahu was wrong to insist that normal Jewish construction in Jerusalem has no bearing on the peace process.
“There clearly is a link in the sense that it is incumbent upon both parties … they are responsible for creating conditions for a successful negotiation,” Crowley said. “To suggest that this kind of announcement would not have an impact on the Palestinian side I think is incorrect.”
Netanyahu’s office responded by issuing a statement reminding the US and Europe that “Jerusalem is not a settlement; Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel.”
The Prime Minister’s Office reiterated that “Israel has never accepted upon itself restrictions of any kind on
construction in Jerusalem… Israel sees no connection between the diplomatic process and planning and
building policy in Jerusalem, which has not changed in 40 years.”
The Israeli statement also cautioned the international community against giving the Palestinian leadership the justification it needs to refuse reaching a compromise-based peace agreement. It noted that Israel has been building homes for Jews in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem for 40 years, and that policy has never prevented peace talks before.
As evidence that the new US and European position is harmful, Palestinian leaders played off the criticism by Obama and Ashton by demanding that the international community immediately recognize a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence.
“Israeli unilateralism is a call for immediate international recognition of the Palestinian state,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.