The United States State Department made it clear Tuesday that Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem are “settlements,” which U.S. President Barack Obama has called “illegitimate."
U.S. officials previously have used the term “settlement” to describe the Har Homa neighborhood, opposite the neighborhood of Gilo on the southern end of Jerusalem. Like French Hill, Ramot and eastern Talpiot, it was restored to Israel in the Six Day War in 1967 and officially annexed to Jerusalem in 1980. Approximately 300,000 Jews live in these neighborhoods.
The Obama administration has not stated whether it makes a distinction between building in Har Homa and the other neighborhoods.
Reporters covering the daily State Department press briefing have recently asked tough-than-usual questions concerning what they see as the United States trying to determine the future borders of a Palestinian Authority state instead of allowing Israel and the PA to negotiate directly.
In Tuesday’s session, reporters peppered State Department assistant spokesman Robert Wood with questions on how the Obama administration can continue to insist on a halt to all building for Jews in eastern Jerusalem as well as Judea and Samaria in light of solid support from within Israel for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu told the Cabinet this week that Israel has complete sovereignty over all of Jerusalem and decides issues such as building permits. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon declared on Tuesday, “Israel will continue to operate in accordance with its vital national interests... Our right to rule and develop Jerusalem is irrefutable.”
Even Intelligence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, one of the most dovish Likud Knesset Members, who previously has favored the idea of surrendering the strategic Golan Heights to Syria, took up the cause for Jerusalem Tuesday.
He asserted that the U.S. is obligated by informal commitments by former President George W. Bush, who wrote to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that large population Jewish centers, such as Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim, will remain part of Israel in any final agreement with the PA. Washington recently has lumped eastern Jerusalem with Maaleh Adumim as “settlements.” The Obama administration has rejected any commitment to the promises because they were not part of a formal agreement.
"It is of great importance to us that what the [previous] U.S. administration agreed to is not overlooked," Meridor told reporters. "This is how countries take upon themselves obligations." He added that the “oral understandings” are “binding on us and them.”
Reporters at the State Department noted Meridor’s and Ayalon’s statements, mentioning that Ayalon said Israel must act in line with its national interests and its rights in Jerusalem.
Wood replied, “No one is asking Israel to act outside its national security interests. What we’re asking both parties to do is to fulfill the Roadmap obligations,” although the American proposal does not state anything about Israel’s unilaterally ceasing construction for Jews in eastern Jerusalem or anywhere else.
No one is asking Israel to act outside its national security interests.
Israeli media jumped on Wood’s statement that it is “premature” to talk about financial pressures to force Israel to bend to American policies, but the context of his comment was a direct reply to a question and was not a hint that the Obama administration is considering such a step.
“I think we’ve been very clear with regard to settlements,” Wood said. “They need to stop, and that includes natural growth. I don’t have anything more to add to that. The Israelis are well aware of our position. And we’ll obviously continue to have talks with the Israelis on this subject and other issues, but our policy remains the same.”
U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is to arrive in the region later this week for more talks with Israel and the PA on the issue of building for Jews in eastern Jerusalem as well as Judea and Samaria.