WASHINGTON - In a striking public rebuke, the Obama administration warned Israel on Wednesday that plans for a controversial new housing project in east Jerusalem would distance Israel from "even its closest allies" and raise questions about its commitment to seeking peace with Palestinians.
The harsh criticism came just hours after President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House. Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said the president privately raised his concerns with Netanyahu, though the two leaders didn't mention the matter in their public comments to reporters.
"This development will only draw condemnation from the international community," Earnest said. "It also would call into question Israel's ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians."
The new 2,500-unit project is contentious because it would complete a band of Jewish areas separating Jerusalem from nearby Bethlehem. The United States has repeatedly criticized Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, casting it as damaging to efforts to secure an elusive peace accord with the Palestinians.
The White House also condemned what it called the recent occupation of residential buildings in Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem where several hundred hard-line Israeli settlers have moved in recent years. Earnest called the occupation "provocative" and said it will "escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions have already been high."
Appearing before reporters earlier, Obama and Netanyahu betrayed little of the U.S. displeasure projected by the White House spokesman, as well as officials at the State Department. While the two leaders have long had a tense relationship, each took a polite and cordial tone in his brief public remarks.
Still, areas of discord were evident, most notably Obama's frustration over Palestinian civilian deaths during the summer war in Gaza and Israel's wariness of U.S.-led nuclear negotiations with Iran.