WASHINGTON — In unusually rare and blunt criticism of its top Mideast ally, the Obama administration on Tuesday slammed Israel for continuing to announce new settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians.
The State Department accused Israel of engaging in a "pattern of provocative action" that calls into question statements from Israeli leaders that they are committed to peace. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said settlement activity only puts the goal of peace "further at risk" and urged both Israel and the Palestinians to halt all provocations and take steps to revive long-stalled peace talks.
"We are deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action," Nuland told reporters. "These repeated announcements and plans of new construction run counter to the cause of peace. Israel's leaders continually say that they support a path towards a two-state solution, yet these actions only put that goal further at risk."
The administration's questioning of the Israeli leadership's stated commitment to peace was unexpected, if not unprecedented, and appeared to take Washington's longstanding opposition to settlements to a new level. However, it was not clear if the tough new words would be matched by actions.
The comments came as Israel's prime minister rejected international criticism of plans to build thousands more Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, saying construction would move forward. Meanwhile, diplomats said four European nations were moving ahead with plans to condemn Israel at the United Nations for settlement construction.
Despite the strong rhetoric, Nuland said the United States did not believe pursuing condemnation of Israel at the U.N. Security Council would be "helpful" in resurrecting the stalled peace process.
"We again call on Israel and the Palestinians to cease any kinds of counterproductive, unilateral actions and take concrete steps to return to direct negotiations," she said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced plans to build thousands of homes in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in response to the U.N. General Assembly's decision last month to upgrade the Palestinians' status to nonmember observer state.
One diplomat said the proposed European statement of condemnation would be a "political message" distributed to all the other Security Council members but that the Europeans are not asking the council to adopt a formal "presidential statement" or less important "press statement." Each of those would require approval by all council members.
In such cases, the United States previously has stepped in on the side of Israel on the recurrent issue of settlements.
Almost exactly a year ago, the same four European nations — Britain, France, Portugal and Germany — issued a statement at the U.N. Security Council critical of Israeli settlements. They and the other 10 members pointed a finger at the United States for blocking any condemnation of Israel's accelerated settlement construction.
The United States vetoed a U.N. resolution in February that would have condemned "illegal" Israeli settlements and urged an immediate halt to all settlement building. The 14 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution.