In a blunt rebuke, the State Department on Wednesday accused Israel of planning to establish a new Jewish settlement deep in the West Bank, saying the move would further harm chances for a two-state solution for peace with Palestinians.
The statement by Mark Toner, State Department spokesman, came a week after a committee in Israel's Defense Ministry decided to promote a plan for 98 new homes in what the committee described as a new neighborhood in the existing settlement of Shiloh.
The Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now warned over the weekend that the building plan could eventually include 300 units.
The State Department said that "redrawing of local settlement boundaries does not change the fact that this approval contradicts previous public statements by the government of Israel that it had no intention of creating new settlements.
"And this settlement's location deep in the West Bank, far closer to Jordan than Israel, would link a string of outposts that effectively divide the West Bank and make the possibility of a viable Palestinian state more remote.''
In a response released Wednesday night, Israel's Foreign Ministry denied the new housing constitutes a new settlement. "This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shiloh and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint,'' the statement said. The ministry said the new housing would provide a "solution" to facilitate the relocation of residents of Amona, a hilltop outpost elsewhere in the West Bank that Israel's Supreme Court has said must be demolished.
Toner criticized Israel for approving the new housing just weeks after the allies reached a new multibillion-dollar 10-year agreement on military aid, and as world leaders paid tribute to former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who died last week, for his efforts to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.
The right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticized by the international community over its settlement policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, particularly for efforts to retroactively legalize dozens of unauthorized hilltop outposts.
A statement cosigned by Yoav Kish, a pro-settler legislator from Netanyahu's Likud Party, said the State Department statement marked a "black stain on the White House" and said the Obama administration should "respect the democratic decision of the Israeli public and its sovereign government.''
In recent months, the Israeli government has been searching for a way to sidestep a court ruling to demolish Amona, an outpost with dozens of homes built illegally on Palestinian property, by the end of December. Israel has considered a bill to retroactively legalize Amona and relocate the outpost to plots of land owned by Palestinian who do not live in the West Bank.
Hagit Ofran, a spokeswoman for Peace Now, said the new housing plan was meant to mollify the government's pro-settler constituency and allow authorities to comply with the court order and avert a clash when evacuating Amona.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said in a statement Tuesday that the decision was the latest evidence of "Israel's resolve to destroy the two-state solution…. Day by day the right-wing extremist Israeli government's real intentions are unraveled by Israel's lack of respect for international law."