WASHINGTON - The White House issued an unusual rebuke of Israel on Friday, expressing "regret" at the Israeli government's announcement that it would expand settlements in Palestinian areas.
"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Israeli media reported Friday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu soon will approve the construction of hundreds of new housing units in settlements, apparently an effort to placate members of his right-leaning Likud party before he officially reaches a deal with the Obama administration to freeze settlement activity for six to nine months in order lay the groundwork for new peace talks.
The administration's special envoy for Middle East peace, former Sen. George Mitchell, has been negotiating the settlement freeze over the past months, with the aim of announcing a deal this month at the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. The Israeli government has told U.S. officials that even under a freeze it is unable to halt construction of 2,500 housing units, but the new construction apparently would be in addition to that activity.
"We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate," the White House statement said. "We do appreciate Israel's stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined."
The White House statement was unusual both because it was issued so quickly after the initial media reports and because it publicly criticized Israel in the midst of delicate negotiations. U.S. officials are clearly worried that such Israeli actions will undercut the delicate effort by Mitchell to lay the groundwork for new talks. Palestinian officials have said they will refuse to resume talks unless settlement activity is halted, and several Arab states are poised to take symbolic steps toward normalization with Israel if a credible settlement freeze is reached.
Mitchell met in New York this week with Israeli envoys and is due to return to Israel next week for further discussions.
"Our objective remains to resume meaningful negotiations as soon as possible in pursuit of this goal," the White House said. "We are working with all parties - Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states - on the steps they must take to achieve that objective."
"For us, this idea is completely unacceptable," Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris. "We are asking the Israelis to freeze the settlements and to go toward the next phase of peace talks."