WASHINGTON — The United States denounced Israel's approval of new West Bank settlements Wednesday, ending what appeared to be a short-lived honeymoon in U.S.-Israeli relations that had been strained by the Iran nuclear deal.
In a series of unusually harsh condemnations, the State Department and the White House condemned the approval of a new Israeli neighborhood in the West Bank, calling it "deeply troubling" and "the source of disappointment and deep concern."
The United States has opposed Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories for decades, so the denunciations did not mark any shift in U.S. policy. But the Obama administration made clear that they're particularly upset about the size location of the new settlements, which are closer to the Jordanian border than they are to Israel.
And then there's the timing: The United States and Israel just completed a $38 billion, 10-year defense assistance agreement, which was consummated with a handshake between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York last month. And Obama just returned Friday from the funeral of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
"The recent announcement from the Israeli government does provoke strong feelings in the administration," White House Pres Secretary Josh Earnest said. "Mr. Peres was a great champion of peace. And the plans that were announced by the Israeli government fundamentally undermine the prospects for the kind of two-state solution that Mr. Peres dedicated his life to passionately supporting."
Earnest also suggested that there was some affront taken by the fact that the Netanyahu government had given public assurances that it would not continue the settlements. "And I guess when we're talking about how good friends treat one another, that's a source of serious concern as well," he said.
The Israeli government responded late Wednesday by denying that the 98 additional housing units constituted a "new settlement" in violation of its commitments to a two-state solution. "This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shilo and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Obama administration officials underscored that the United States remains committed to Israel's security, and said its protests to the Israeli government were in that context.
"We have a very close and very frank and candid relationship with Israel," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday. "We're going to continue to call it like we see it, and when we see this kind of activity that we believe is counterproductive, we're going to say so."