The Obama administration on Wednesday sharply criticized Israel's decision to accelerate settlement construction in east Jerusalem and the West Bank in retaliation for the Palestinians winning membership from the United Nation's cultural organization.
The administration also renewed criticism of the Palestinian U.N. bid but appeared unwilling or unable to take steps to punish either side for actions that it says harm efforts to get the peace process back on track.
Using identical language, the White House and State Department said the administration was "deeply disappointed" in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's settlement decision. While that language is stern by diplomatic standards, the administration did not accompany it with any threat to use its leverage as Israel's main benefactor and protector.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu defended his decision to expand construction in east Jerusalem, saying it was Israel's "right" and "duty" to build in all parts of its capital. Late Tuesday, Netanyahu's office said 2,000 new apartments would be built in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, angering the Palestinians and the United States, among others.
"Unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direct negotiations, and they do not advance the goal of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the two parties," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "And that is the only way to achieve the two-state solution that both sides have as their goal. So any action ... that either side takes that makes it harder rather than easier for the two parties to come together in direct negotiations is something that we oppose."
"We continue to make our opposition to this clear to the government of Israel," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. She also criticized a separate Israeli decision to temporarily suspend the transfer of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenue that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
"We believe that the regular transfer of money, whether it's U.S. money, whether it's Israeli money, is important and should continue to be made. These are key to strengthening Palestinian institutions and are necessary for funding the future of the state," she said.
She said the Israeli moves, along with the Palestinians' insistence on winning U.N. recognition, were driving the peace process "in the wrong direction."
The U.S. and other mediators have been unable to persuade the two sides to return to direct talks for more than a year, and there is little optimism about a new plan they've been promoting to reach a comprehensive peace agreement by the end of 2012. The mediators are hoping that "rather than engaging in provocative action," the Israelis and Palestinians will "start working on narrowing the differences" on issues such as borders and security, Nuland said.
Despite ignoring U.S. and international pleas to refrain from provocative acts, neither Israel nor the Palestinians are likely to see the United States take direct measures to punish them. The U.S. provides significant assistance to both _ billions of dollars to Israel and hundreds of millions to the Palestinians _ that it could use as leverage. However, there is no political appetite to curb aid to Israel and the administration is fighting congressional efforts to slash Palestinian funding, arguing that it is in U.S. and Israeli interests not to destabilize the Palestinian Authority.