The United States Wednesday expressed deep disappointment over Israel’s decision to speed up settlement building. The Israeli move came after UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, granted the Palestinians full membership, action that also drew U.S. criticism.
The Israeli settlement decision and the action by UNESCO Monday amounted to a double setback for the Obama administration, which has opposed unilateral steps by either side that would set back peace hopes.
Israel said it would accelerate the building of 2,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem and in two Jewish settlements in the West Bank in action widely seen as retaliation for the Palestinians’ successful membership bid in UNESCO.
Israel also said it would freeze transfers of tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority.
The moves drew unusually blunt criticism from both the White House and the State Department, where spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said this week’s events are taking U.S.-led peace efforts in the wrong direction.
“We are deeply disappointed by yesterday’s announcement about the accelerated housing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank. We continued to make our opposition to this clear to the government of Israel. And as we’ve said again and again and again, unilateral actions by either party work against efforts to resume direct negotiations and do not advance the goal of a reasonable and necessary agreement between these parties.”
Nuland said the transfer of money to the Palestinian Authority - be it in U.S. aid, or tax receipts on-passed by Israel - is key to strengthening institutions for a future Palestinian state.
The Obama administration this week halted U.S. dues payments to UNESCO - amounting to more than 20 per cent of the agency’s budget, under terms of a law passed by the US Congress several years ago.
There are also calls by lawmakers for cuts in direct U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority because of its drive for U.N. statehood recognition outside of negotiations with Israel .
At a policy conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis said the latest settlement action was a misguided effort by Israeli hardliners to strike back after the UNESCO vote.
“These actions taken the last day or two reflect the knee-jerk reaction (hasty reaction) of the right-wing in the cabinet. We have to show that warnings that we gave them if they went to the U.N., if they went to UNESCO we’re going to demonstrate that that has a price. So they’re trying to make them pay the price. It’s a terrible strategy,” Lewis said.
The State Department’s Victoria Nuland said despite the latest events, U.S. envoys hope to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials “in the next couple of weeks” on the next step in a peace plan by the international Middle East Quartet that aims at a two-state settlement by the end of 2012.
The Quartet, made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, wants the parties to present detailed proposals on the territorial and security aspects of a peace accord by late January.