Barack Obama, US president, has criticised the Israeli government’s disclosure of new plans to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations,” Mr Obama said during a visit to Indonesia.
The US president was more muted, however, than Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, who called for the expansion to be reversed.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, rejected the criticism while on a visit to the US. “Israel sees no connection between the peace process and planning and building policy in Jerusalem,” his office said in a statement.
The Israeli building plans, which have already been sharply criticised by Palestinian leaders, are at least one year from being implemented. But taken together they could pave the way for the construction of more than 2,000 housing units for Jewish settlers.
The two biggest projects focus on Har Homa, a settlement south of Jerusalem that has been the source of previous diplomatic friction between the US and Israel, and Ariel, a large settlement deep inside the Palestinian West Bank.
The new settlement projects were revealed only days before Mr Netanyahu is due to meet Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in Washington.
Several analysts and officials argued the timing of the announcements, just ahead of the Thursday meeting, was no coincidence, and suggested they could be part of an Israeli effort to prepare the ground for a new freeze on settlement construction. By allowing such sweeping plans to move ahead now, Mr Netanyahu may be hoping to limit right-wing and settler opposition should he decide to implement a new moratorium.
The US administration has repeatedly urged Israel to renew its 10-month freeze on settlement building, which lapsed in September. Washington believes a new moratorium is vital to reviving deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Palestinian leaders interpreted the latest expansion as a sign that Israel had turned its back on the peace process. “Israel’s latest announcement of more settlement construction further threatens the already stagnated negotiations process,” said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator.
Separately, John Kerry, chair of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said he would urge Turkey to restore relations with Israel and play a “crucial role” in Middle East peace negotiations. Israel’s attack on a maritime Gaza aid convoy last summer, in which nine Turks died, ended a long-standing alliance with Ankara.
The House of Representatives, where the Republicans will hold a majority when the new Congress convenes in January, is likely to increase scrutiny of Iran policy. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also signalled her plans to hold hearings on Iran and is sceptical of any concessions to Tehran or pressure on Israel.
Mr Kerry said on a visit to Ankara: “[The House of Representatives] will be more ready to say [to Iran], put up or shut up. There are people in there who will not hesitate to say, ‘prepare the military option’.”
Additional reporting by Delphine Strauss in Ankara
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