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U.S. slams Netanyahu after he equates opposition to Israeli settlements with 'ethnic cleansing'

U.S. slams Netanyahu after he equates opposition to Israeli settlements with 'ethnic cleansing'
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem in 2015. (Ahikam Seri / AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration on Friday blasted new comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he said critics of Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank are advocating the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews.

Using unusually forceful language to criticize a longstanding ally, the State Department said it was protesting Netanyahu's comments directly to his government. It was not clear if U.S. officials believe Netanyahu was referring to them in the comments.

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The U.S. has long condemned Israel's aggressive building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, contested land that the Palestinians want for their eventual state.

Netanyahu said that just as Israel has nearly 2 million Arabs living in Israel, so should Palestinians tolerate Jews living in their midst.

"Yet the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one precondition: no Jews," Netanyahu said in a video he posted on Facebook. "There's a phrase for that. It's called ethnic cleansing."

He added that he had "always been perplexed" that critics viewed settlements as an obstacle to peace.

Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War, areas that the Palestinians claim for their state. Since then, Israel has built more than 100 settlements in the West Bank for about 400,000 Jews. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal.

Palestinians have demanded a halt to settlement construction as a condition to resuming peace talks, which have been essentially stalled for years. Although many Israelis and Palestinians continue to favor a "two-state solution" — an independent Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side — there seems to be little or no political will these days for pursuing an agreement. Palestinians believe the settlements, scattered all over the West Bank, prevent a geographically coherent state.

Asked about Netanyahu's video, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau cited broad international consensus that regards settlements as an "obstacle to peace."

"We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank," Trudeau said. "We believe that using that type of terminology is inappropriate and unhelpful."

She criticized what she called Israel's "dramatic escalation" of the demolition of Palestinian homes and structures, leaving hundreds without shelter. Israel has also retroactively "legalized" unauthorized remote settler outposts and seized additional West Bank land for exclusive Israeli use, she said.

"We have repeatedly expressed our strong concerns that trends on the ground continue to move in the opposite direction" of a two-state solution, Trudeau said. Israel's actions "raise real questions about Israel's long-term intentions in the West Bank."

There has been speculation in Washington that President Obama may instruct Secretary of State John F. Kerry to make one last attempt to find an Israeli-Palestinian accord before the administration leaves office. Russia, meanwhile, hoping to assert itself further on the world stage, has offered to host Israeli-Palestinian talks in the coming weeks.

For more on global affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

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