WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday delivered a stinging rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his government's announcement this week of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, calling it "a deeply negative signal" for the Mideast peace process and ties with the U.S.
The State Department said Clinton spoke to Netanyahu by phone for 43 minutes to vent U.S. frustration with Tuesday's announcement that cast a pall over a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden and endangered indirect peace talks with the Palestinians that the Obama administration had announced just a day earlier.
The length and unusually blunt tone of Clinton's call underscored the administration's concern about prospects for the negotiations it has been trying to organize for more than a year and its anger over Israel's refusal to heed U.S. appeals not to make provocative gestures.
"The announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vice president was there was insulting," Clinton said in an interview with CNN Friday. "It was just really a very unfortunate and difficult moment for everyone, the U.S., our vice president who had gone to reassert America's strong support for Israeli security, and I regret deeply that that occurred and made that view known."
Clinton called "to make clear that the United States considered the announcement to be a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president's trip," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters.
"The secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to Israel's security and she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process," he said.
The harsh criticism of America's closest Mideast ally and questions about its commitment to the U.S.-Israeli relationship followed equally blunt condemnation of the housing announcement from the White House and Biden himself.
It also comes ahead of a trip to the region by U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell and a meeting in Moscow next week of the Quartet of Mideast peacemakers that Clinton will attend.
Hours after the call to Netanyahu, the Quartet – the U.S., European Union, United Nations and Russia – denounced the Israeli announcement in a statement from the world body's headquarters in New York where Clinton was addressing a commission on the status of women and meeting with U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.
"The Quartet has agreed to closely monitor developments in Jerusalem and to keep under consideration additional steps that may be required to address the situation on the ground," the statement said.
It did not elaborate on what steps it would consider but said the Quartet members "would take full stock of the situation" when they meet in the Russian capital next Friday.
The Quartet has long urged both Israel and the Palestinians not to take any steps that could hinder peace talks. Crowley stressed that the United States objected to both the content and timing of the announcement and said Clinton had "reinforced that this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America's interests."
Netanyahu has apologized for the timing, though not the substance, of the announcement to approve 1,600 new homes for Jews in east Jerusalem. The international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem – captured in the 1967 Mideast war – and the Palestinians see that part of the city as their own future capital.
Earlier Friday, an Israeli cabinet minister said the government is moving to amend the country's planning procedures on sensitive political decisions because of the embarrassing diplomatic flap. Netanyahu has said he was not aware the announcement was going to be made during Biden's visit.
The Israeli announcement enraged the Palestinians and Arab states, jeopardizing the proximity talks Mitchell is to mediate. An Arab League advisory committee has already withdrawn its endorsement of the discussions.
In a bid to salvage those negotiations, Mitchell and the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Arab League chief Amr Moussa and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates over the past two days, Crowley said.