JERUSALEM — With relations between Israel and the United States in distress over deep disagreements on Iranian nuclear negotiations and construction in West Bank settlements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze plans Tuesday for building in a particularly contentious area outside Jerusalem known as E1.
But Israel’s housing ministry nonetheless approved spending nearly $13 million on initial planning for nearly 20,000 new units in West Bank territory seized by Israel in 1967, which Palestinian leaders and left-wing Israelis condemned as a sign that Netanyahu was not serious about the peace talks that started this summer.
A senior official in the prime minister’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly, said Netanyahu had halted construction plans in E1, a vast, hilly expanse between East Jerusalem and a large Israeli settlement called Maale Adumim, so as not to exacerbate tensions with Washington and the West.
A year ago, Israel prompted an international uproar by declaring its intention to build there a day after the United Nations voted to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to an observer state. Palestinians contend that construction in E1, short for East 1, would disrupt the contiguity of their future state.
“At this moment, when we want the focus of the international community on Iran, it just doesn’t make sense to point people’s attention to an issue which ultimately has no real significance,” the Israeli official said Tuesday. As to the broader plans approved by the housing ministry, the official played them down as part of a “yearly bureaucratic process” outlining “long-term goals,” and emphasized, “This is not construction — construction requires separate decisions.”
The calibrated move came days after Secretary of State John F. Kerry criticized in harsher terms than usual Israel’s continued construction in West Bank settlements, contributing to a crisis of confidence between Washington and Jerusalem centered on the diplomatic initiative with Iran.
Netanyahu has relentlessly criticized an interim deal being proposed in which Iran would freeze much of its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of some economic sanctions. “There is no need to rush into a bad deal,” he reiterated Tuesday.
During a visit here last week, Kerry called settlements “illegitimate” and said in a joint television interview with Israeli and Palestinian journalists, “The entire peace process would in fact be easier if the settlements were not taking place.”
“Let me ask you something: How, if you say you’re working for peace and you want peace and a Palestine that is a whole Palestine that belongs to the people who live there, how can you say we’re planning to build in the place that will eventually be Palestine?” Kerry said in the interview, causing much consternation among Israeli commentators.
“It sends a message that somehow, perhaps, you’re not really serious,” he added. “If you announce planning, I believe it is disruptive to the process.”
Bernadette Meehan, a White House spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the Obama administration was “deeply concerned” about the planning moves, and that it was “seeking further explanation” from the Israeli government. “We have called on both sides to take steps to create a positive atmosphere for the negotiations,” she said in a statement. “We do not consider settlement planning, even in its early stages, to be a step that creates a positive environment for the negotiations.”
Israeli and Palestinian critics said Tuesday’s decision, to hire architects and urban planners for numerous projects that would expand various West Bank settlements, was a sign that the peace process itself was doomed.
“They’re telling the Palestinians there’s no reason to talk, but we want the charade of talks while we continue to steal your land and build more settlements,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.
Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, which opposes Jewish settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories, said there had not been such a large push forward on settlement construction in one swoop in decades. Despite Netanyahu’s hesitance on E1, Oppenheimer said, the broader plan indicates that he is using the peace talks as “a very good alibi” while working to “destroy” the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.