TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Israel criticized Israel's West Bank settlement policies at a high-profile security conference Monday, a rare public rebuke from Israel's top ally that drew an angry response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Daniel Shapiro said that Washington was "concerned and perplexed" over Israel's strategy of building West Bank settlements. Speaking to the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, a top Israeli think tank, he said Israel's continued expansion of settlements raises questions about Israel's intentions and its stated commitment to establishing an independent Palestinian state. Shapiro added that Israel had also legalized some West Bank outposts despite pledges to the United States not to do so.
As Israel's closest friend, the United States is steadfast in its support for Israel but it was also its role to call Israel out on its errors, Shapiro said. He noted that Israel restricts Palestinian economic development in the West Bank and, despite its recent indictment against the suspects in a deadly arson attack against a Palestinians family, bemoaned what he called an inadequate response to settler violence.
"Too much vigilantism goes unchecked and at times there seem to be two standards of adherence to the rule of law: one for Israelis and another for Palestinians," he said.
In the West Bank, Israelis are subject to Israeli civil law, while Palestinians are governed by Israeli military law, which offers far fewer legal protections. Palestinians and rights groups say that Israelis suspected in violence against Palestinians are rarely brought to justice, while Palestinian attackers are quickly arrested or killed.
The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din said Shapiro's comments were grounded in data they have been collecting that showed an 85 percent failure rate in investigating ideologically-motivated crimes by Israelis against Palestinians.
Over the past decade, the group says it has monitored the police's handling of 1,104 investigations opened following complaints of Palestinians. It says indictments were served against suspects in just 75 of these cases.
Shapiro's remarks sparked a terse response from Netanyahu, who said they were inappropriate at a time of heightened violence with the Palestinians.
On Sunday, an Israeli woman was stabbed to death by a Palestinian assailant in her home in a West Bank settlement. On Monday, another woman was stabbed and badly wounded in another West Bank settlement.
"The ambassador's comments, on a day when a mother of six is being buried and a pregnant woman is stabbed, are unacceptable and untrue," Netanyahu said. "Israel enforces the law on Israelis and Palestinians. The one responsible for the diplomatic stalemate is the Palestinian Authority, which continues to incite and refuses to negotiate."
Over the last four months, Palestinian attacks have killed 25 Israelis and an American student. At least 146 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire. Israel says 101 of them have been attackers while the rest have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops.
Israel contends that the violence is the result of a Palestinian campaign of lies and incitement. The Palestinians argue it is rooted in frustrations over Israel's nearly 50-year occupation.
The international community considers the settlements, built on lands Israel captured in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians, illegal or illegitimate.
The spat highlights the tense relations of late between the United States and Israel, mostly over Israel's fierce objection to the Iranian nuclear deal.