JERUSALEM -- New plans for Israeli settlements in the West Bank are adding fresh tension to the country’s already stressed relations with the U.S. and the Palestinians.
The announcement Tuesday of long-term development plans that would add 20,000 housing units in West Bank settlements was met with surprise and concern by U.S. officials.
“Our position on the settlements is quite clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a daily media briefing.
The U.S. has expressed concern over steps that are “not conducive” to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, she said, “and settlements is certainly one of them.”
The announcement by Israel’s Housing Ministry enraged Palestinian officials, who are now considering an appeal to the United Nations. “This is an official Israeli declaration that they’ve decided to terminate the peace process and the negotiations,” chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israeli media Wednesday.
“This government of Israel will go down in history as the government that destroyed the two-state solution,” he said.
In an interview during his visit to Israel last week, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry criticized the government for its settlement policies and cautioned that the country could face violence if peace talks fail.
The comments angered Israeli officials and were rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as external pressure to compromise on Israel’s security.
Kerry’s latest mission to maintain the troubled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, renewed this summer, ended in a clash with Israeli officials over a potential deal between the U.S., five other major world powers and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program.
Netanyahu was reportedly taken by surprise at the Housing Ministry’s announcement, which was not coordinated with his office, and ordered a halt on preliminary planning for the controversial development, which Israel and the U.S. have clashed over in the past.
He also directed Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a strong supporter of the settlements, to reconsider the announcement.
Netanyahu supports settlement expansion but his statement Tuesday night suggested that he is choosing his battles.
“At this time, the attention of the international community must not be diverted from the main effort -- preventing Iran from receiving an agreement that will allow it to continue its military nuclear program,” he said.