Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has quietly rejected an attempt by the United States to clamp down on Israeli construction within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Netanyahu is not willing to publicly discuss his response to the U.S. criticism, however, nor will he allow anyone else in his government to talk about it.
"The office has no reaction to that," David Baker, spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, told Israel National News on Wednesday. He refused further comment.
Baker's actions clearly confirmed reports by senior sources that Netanyahu had warned government officials against making any statements about the U.S. pressure on Israel to halt construction in parts of Jerusalem that were restored to the capital after the 1967 Six Day War -- this time, the neighborhood of Gilo, built in 1971.
The southeastern neighborhood, one of the capital's largest, has a population of some 33,000 and has just been added to the list for the first time. But the burgeoning northwestern Jerusalem suburb of Ramot, home to at least 40,000 residents, may soon be questioned as well, since it is in the same category.
During a media briefing Tuesday in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly slammed the decision by the Jerusalem Municipal Planning Committee to approve a plan to build 900 housing units in Gilo.
"At a time when we are working to relaunch negotiations, we believe that these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed," he said. "So we object to this, and we object to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes," he said.
"And -- just to repeat what we've said all along, our position on Jerusalem is clear," Kelly added. "We believe that that -- that Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties."
Kelly confirmed that U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell met Monday in London with a Netanyahu adviser. He parried a question raised by a journalist as to whether Mitchell had requested that Netanyahu halt construction in Gilo and sidestepped another question on whether that request had been rejected. Mitchell, who was expected back in Washington on Wednesday, has no plans to meet with PA officials at present, said Kelly, but did not explain why.
He also noted that the U.S. was discouraging "any kind of unilateral appeal for United Nations Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That would fall in that category of unilateral actions."
'Red Line' Drawn at Jerusalem
Prime Minister Netanyahu has been willing to show the "greatest possible restraint" concerning construction in Judea and Samaria, according to a government source. However, he said, Netanyahu firmly drew the line at Jerusalem.
The city's mayor, Nir Barket, has also said bluntly he would not halt construction in any part of the capital, east or west. "Israeli law does not discriminate between Arabs and Jews or between east and west of the city," he said in a statement issued to the media.
"The demand to cease construction just for Jews is illegal, also in the United States and any other enlightened place in the world. It is inconceivable that the U.S. government would demand a construction freeze in the U.S. based on race, religion or sex, and the attempt to demand this from Jerusalem constitutes a double standard that is unacceptable. The Jerusalem municipality will continue to enable construction in every part of the city for Jews and Arabs alike," Barkat vowed.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin had no compunctions whatsoever about expressing his anger on Tuesday against the U.S. attempt to interfere with internal Israeli policies. Speaking during a meeting with visiting Lithuanian Ambassador Darius Degotis, Rivlin said the new demands were "of the type that are ... pushing us toward a red line that we cannot allow ourselves to cross, and are not legitimate."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his voice to the chorus of Western disapproval of the Jerusalem municipality's actions Tuesday night, according to IDF Army Radio. U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas said in a statement that Ban "believes such actions undermine efforts for peace and cast doubt on the viability of the two-state solution." In the statement, she quoted Ban as referring to Gilo as a "settlement" built on territory "conquered from the Palestinians in 1967."
The British Foreign Office also issued a statement saying "The Foreign Secretary has been very clear that a credible deal involves Jerusalem as a shared capital. Expanding settlements on occupied land in east Jerusalem makes that deal much harder, so this decision on Gilo is wrong and we oppose it."
PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat took advantage of the bruhaha to claim there was little point in resuming peace talks when Israel is still building homes in the eastern part of the capital. "We condemn this in the strongest possible terms. It shows that it is meaningless to resume negotiations," he said.
The land on which Gilo was built, as with the suburb of Ramot and other so-called "disputed" parts of Jerusalem, was wrested from Israel by Jordan during the 1948 War. It was occupied solely by the Hashemite Kingdom until 1967, when Israel won it back, restoring Jerusalem to its former unified status as the unidivided capital of Israel and the Jewish People.