US condemns Israeli settlement expansion, says it was a ‘major obstacle’ to peace

By Shadi Hamid and Brian Schaffner

The United States strongly condemned Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank on Thursday, labeling it a “major obstacle” to peace and saying it took the Trump administration’s officials by surprise.

The Washington Post broke the news late Wednesday that Israel had approved plans for thousands of new homes in settlements across the West Bank – in fact, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed as much in a speech before a joint meeting of Congress Thursday morning.

The US State Department released a statement shortly after condemning Israeli settlements.

“The United States opposes all unilateral actions that attempt to change the status quo in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including settlement expansion,” the statement said. “Such actions risk undermining the prospect of peace, threaten regional stability, and could create the basis for further incitement.”

Two major U.S. congressional committees and the bipartisan chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also expressed dismay. And the European Union also condemned the settlement plans.

“Building settlements is illegal under international law and an obstacle to peace,” EU High Representative Federica Mogherini said in a statement on Thursday. “Further settlement announcements risk escalating tensions and undermining the trust between Palestinians and Israelis. They create a further incentive for those who reject the two-state solution to put their hands on the levers of power in the hopes of derailing the peace process.”

Shortly after U.S. officials issued their statement, Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted that Israel should “immediately reverse these actions.”

The State Department’s statement singled out Netanyahu for criticism.

“We are taking this action,” the State Department said, “in light of Israel’s announcement yesterday that it intends to significantly expand the construction of housing units in dozens of communities throughout the West Bank.

“This announcement was a major obstacle to peace and undermines the prospect of peace, and we condemn these actions,” the statement said.

The statement singled out settlement expansion.

“The United States opposes all unilateral actions that attempt to change the status quo in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including settlement expansion,” the statement said. “Such actions risk undermining the prospect of peace, threaten regional stability, and could create the basis for further incitement.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader, and several congressional committees also expressed concern. “It is outrageous that the previous administration would allow things to deteriorate this way after putting the Trump administration on notice with the release of a security document warning against continued settlement construction,” said Schumer, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also criticized Netanyahu for approving the settlement expansions, calling the move “counterproductive to a two-state solution.”

Two congressional committees – the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee – also issued statements condemning the settlement construction, though they stopped short of saying it amounted to Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.

“Israel has the right to develop settlements in the West Bank,” a statement from the Armed Services Committee said. “But the EU and other international partners share our strong view that these settlements are illegitimate. Settlements undermine our shared goal of achieving a two-state solution.”

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