WASHINGTON — The White House rebuked Israel with heavy criticism Tuesday after the Jerusalem city government moved toward the construction of 900 additional housing units in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim for the capital of their future state.
President Barack Obama has made restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians a top foreign policy goal. To that end, he has demanded that Israel cease building new or expanding existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Israel insists that East Jerusalem will never be surrendered to Arab rule and that the entirety of the city will remain the capital of the Jewish state. Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordanian control in the 1967 Mideast War and annexed it.
The city is considered holy by the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered restraint on settlement building in the West Bank, where Palestinians want to create an independent state, but has refused to budge from Israel's long-standing insistence that the status of Jerusalem is not open for negotiation.
In criticizing the Israeli housing plan, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said:
"We are dismayed," and he criticized the Israelis as making "it more difficult for our efforts (toward peacemaking) to succeed."
Netanyahu's office quickly fired back that the Jerusalem neighborhood in question, Gilo, "is an integral part of Jerusalem. ... Building in Gilo has continued unabated for decades, and there is nothing new in the current planning and construction."
The Palestinians said the Israeli housing plan was a rejection of Obama's efforts.
"This is a message to President Obama that Israel does not care about the American position," Nabil Abu Rdeneh, spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told The Associated Press. "There should be real American pressure on the Israelis to stop all these acts. Such acts prove that Israel does not want peace and does not want to revive the peace process, and it really puts the interests of the United States at stake."
The White House reacted rapidly to developments in Jerusalem, with Gibbs statement issued as he was traveling with Obama in China.
It made clear that the administration did not accept Netanyahu's argument that the expansion of housing in East Jerusalem was irrelevant to attempts to resume Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
It also blunted Arab criticism of remarks by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton three weeks ago in Jerusalem. At the time, she said Netanyahu was showing "restraint" about future settlements in the West Bank and called that "positive movement forward."
Arabs were outraged at those comments because they viewed it as an endorsement of Netanyahu's refusal to budge on housing expansion in East Jerusalem. Clinton subsequently made an unplanned visit to Egypt to explain her remarks.
The Palestinians insist that a complete freeze on building, whether in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, is a requirement for restarting peace talks.
Associated Press writers Barry Schweid in Washington and Mark Lavie in Jerusalem contributed to this report.