What began as a reportedly amicable meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ended in fresh strain on US-Israel ties over construction in Jerusalem.
The Obama Administration unleashed harsh criticism of the Jewish state after learning that approval had been granted for the construction of 2,610 apartments in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos, which lies adjacent to the neighborhoods of Talpiot, Gilo and Beit Safafa.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was threatening in her tone when addressing reporters on the matter:
“This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies; poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians, but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations; and call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said these new Jewish homes atop a currently barren hilltop would “call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”
Earnest also described as “provocative” the purchase of homes in a predominantly Arab neighborhood by Jewish families. The neighborhood in question is today known as Silwan, but in ancient times was known as the City of David.
Netanyahu responded by noting that Obama and his staff could do themselves a favor by learning the facts before commenting.
“I think they (the Obama administration) should be acquainted with the facts first. You know? First of all, these are not settlements. These are neighborhoods of Jerusalem. We have Arab neighborhoods and we have Jewish neighborhoods,” the Israeli leader told NBC News.
Netanyahu later suggested to reporters accompanying him that the Obama Administration’s position was discriminatory against Jews, and that he could not adopt such policies.
“Arabs in Jerusalem freely buy apartments, and nobody says that is forbidden. I will also not say that Jews cannot buy property in Jerusalem. There cannot be discrimination between Jews and Arabs,” insisted the prime minister.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat voiced similar sentiments. In a statement released by his office, Barkat said adamantly:
“Discrimination based on religion, race or gender is illegal in the United States and in any other civilized country. The 2,600 apartments in Givat Hamatos, which we [first] approved two years ago, will enable more young people from all communities and religions to live in Jerusalem and build their future here, thereby strengthening the capital of Israel. We will not apologize for that.”
Housing Minister Uri Ariel followed up by noting that Arabs, too, will be free to purchase homes in Givat Hamatos. Given its proximity to the neighborhood of Beit Safafa, it is estimated that at least one-third of the new apartments will be purchased by Arab families.
Netanyahu and his ministers were also highly critical of the left-wing Israeli movement Peace Now, which purposely made a story out of the Givat Hamatos construction plans on the same day the prime minister was meeting with Obama.
Netanyahu said it was “no coincidence” that Peace Now’s statement regarding Givat Hamatos had coincided with his White House visit, and slammed the group for demonstrating a “lack of national responsibility” by pulling such a stunt.