U.S. Chides Israel On Settlement Plans

The U.S. is criticizing Israeli plans to build new housing units in West Bank settlements. The White House said Israel's plans were "inconsistent" with previous commitments, and harmful to attempts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

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The Israeli government is expected to approve plans for hundreds of housing units in the West Bank. That is despite the U.S. call for a settlement freeze. The White House responded today with a statement expressing regret. As NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the move further complicates efforts to revive peace talks.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The Obama administration's Middle East envoy has been working for months now trying to, as officials put it, create the right climate for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly says that means all sides should be taking confidence-building steps spelled out in the so-called roadmap to peace.

Mr. IAN KELLY (Spokesman, Department of State): All sides have to abide by their obligations and to the roadmap. And, of course, for the Israelis, that means a stop to settlement activity. For Palestinians, it means increasing confidence in their ability to handle their own security. And for the Arab states, it means taking steps towards normalization of the relationship with Israel.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration was quick to respond to the latest news out of Israel that Prime Minister Netanyahu is planning to allow a final round of building before agreeing to a freeze. Kelly said the U.S. regrets that and has been clear on this issue.

Mr. KELLY: We have had a very open dialogue with our Israeli partners. And Senator Mitchell on multiple occasions has had a thorough discussion of all of these issues.

KELEMEN: Peace envoy George Mitchell is heading back to the region at the end of next week. Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East, says the Obama administration has put itself into a difficult position.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars): The administration wanted a comprehensive freeze on settlement activity, including natural growth. And there's no way they were ever going to get that. So in a way, they identified an objective that was far too ambitious.

KELEMEN: As for Netanyahu, Miller says the Israeli prime minister is trying to balance domestic pressure at home on this issue with the need to improve ties with President Obama by negotiating some restrictions on Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, though not in Jerusalem.

Mr. MILLER: The prime minister quite uncharacteristically countered with something that could, if in fact the agreement is actually concluded, be quite substantial and quite significant, but it's going to fall well short, it seems to me, of what the Arab states and the Palestinians are going to demand. And it poses the perennial problem of what happens every single time that the Israelis take a unilateral action in Jerusalem.

KELEMEN: Miller's prediction is that the Obama administration will end up with, as he put it, significant half measures from the Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs in order to start the more difficult part: negotiations on a future Palestinian state and all the thorny issues that come with that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

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