Jerusalem municipal officials added fire to the already-broiling settlement controversy when they announced a plan yesterday to build 900 new homes in the East Jerusalem suburb of Gilo, a neighborhood with more 40,000 Israelis. The plan prompted an expected chorus of international criticism, and it drew an unusually sharp response from the United States. While White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the administration was “dismayed” by the housing project, President Barack Obama told Fox News in an interview that new settlement construction undermines Israel’s safety and embitters Palestinians in a way that could be “very dangerous.” Reports suggest that the Obama administration feels especially betrayed because its envoy to the region, George Mitchell, asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block new construction in Gilo as recently as Monday.
The Jerusalem Post notes that it’s unusual for the United States to condemn construction in Gilo, which is geographically contiguous with neighborhoods that were part of Israel prior to 1967. The White House has traditionally maintained that Gilo is not a settlement, a fact made clear today when, after initially titling its response to the construction as “on the approval of settlement expansion in Jerusalem,” the headline was later revised to read simply “on Jerusalem.”
Meanwhile, Israeli officials from across the political spectrum united to dismiss the global outcry. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barakat called the demand to cease construction for Jews “illegal,” while Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin noted that “the right to build in all of unified Jerusalem is not questioned in Israel.” Perhaps most significantly, in a rare agreement with Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni told French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that there is an “Israeli consensus” that Gilo belongs to Israel, an understanding which “must be considered when determining future borders.”
Jordan Chandler Hirsch is staff editor at Foreign Affairs.