Jeffrey Heller, Reuters, 15 March 2010
JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected any curbs on Jewish settlement in and around Jerusalem, defying Washington in Israel’s deepening crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration.
“For the past 40 years, no Israeli government ever limited construction in the neighborhoods of Jerusalem,” he said in a speech in parliament, citing areas in the West Bank that Israel captured in 1967 and unilaterally annexed to the city.
The United States condemned Israel’s plan to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in Ramat Shlomo, a religious settlement within the Israeli-designated borders of Jerusalem, whose future status is at the heart of the Middle East conflict.
Israel’s announcement of the project during a visit last week by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden embarrassed the White House. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in unusually blunt remarks, called it an insult.
The Palestinians, who had just agreed to begin indirect peace talks under U.S. mediation, have said they will not go ahead unless the plan is scrapped.
Israeli media said Clinton last week demanded a reversal of the decision to build in Ramat Shlomo. Netanyahu’s comments appeared to signal to Washington that he believed he had political backing at home to withstand U.S. pressure.
Israel has said construction at the site will not begin for several years.
The U.S. criticism of Israel prompted a backlash on Monday from U.S. lawmakers and pro-Israel lobby groups who urged the Obama administration to tone down its rhetoric.
“If we want the Israeli government to act in a way that would be more in keeping with our objectives … it doesn’t help them to have public disparagement by the secretary of state,” Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Clinton called Netanyahu on Friday to convey unspecified demands about the Ramat Shlomo housing project as well as about demonstrating commitment to U.S.-mediated indirect peace talks, the State Department said, without elaborating.
U.S. officials said they were still waiting for Israel’s formal response.