Israel’s announcement of plans to build 1,600 settler homes in east Jerusalem was not only an “insult” to the United States but “destructive” of the Middle East peace process, a top White House official said Sunday.
“This was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region,” said David Axelrod, one of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers.
“We have just started proximity talks, that is shuttle diplomacy, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and for this announcement to come at that time was very destructive,” he said on NBC television’s Meet the Press show.
Israel’s announcement of plans to build the 1,600 housing units in mostly Arab east Jerusalem came March 10 during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden that had aimed to encourage the first indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks since Israel’s 2008-2009 offensive in Gaza.
Axelrod’s comments were further evidence of the Obama administration’s growing frustration with conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden himself condemned the east Jerusalem building plan in a sharp statement issued in Jerusalem and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Netanyahu directly in a 43-minute phone call that the announcement sent a “deeply negative” signal about Israel’s approach to relations with Washington.
Axelrod said both Biden’s and Clinton’s words reflected Obama’s thinking, and he said he believed Netanyahu had received the message.
His comments came after Netanyahu, who has expressed regret over the timing of the announcement, sought to calm down what many in Israel see as the worst crisis in US-Israeli relations in two decades.
“We opened the papers this morning and saw the analyses and reviews,” Netanyahu said Sunday ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting. “I suggest we not get carried away, and calm down.”
“We know how to deal with situations like these, calmly, responsibly and seriously,” he said.
But there was no sign Washington was prepared to let go of the issue.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Netanyahu’s expression of regret was “a good start” but suggested that the Israeli leader had more to do to placate his country’s closest ally.
In an interview on Fox News Sunday, he said that in her conversation with Netanyahu, Clinton outlined steps that the United States thinks he should take.
“I think what would be an even better start is coming to the table with constructive ideas for constructive and trustful dialogue about moving the peace process forward,” he said.
On ABC’s This Week, Axelrod said, “Israel is a strong and special ally. The bonds run deep. But for just that very reason, this was not the right way to behave.”