JERUSALEM — The United States has issued a rare diplomatic rebuke to Israel, in a sign of the Biden administration’s growing frustration over moves by the country's far-right government to entrench control over the occupied West Bank.
Israel’s ambassador to Washington was asked to come to the State Department on Tuesday, where Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman protested changes to Israeli law that would allow new settlement building in the northern West Bank.
The meeting was not a formal diplomatic summons, like the one issued to the Russian ambassador last week after a U.S. drone was downed in the Black Sea. But it was the first time in more than a decade that Israel's ambassador had been called to such a meeting by its closest ally, and it led news bulletins across the Jewish state Wednesday.
Washington said earlier it was "extremely troubled" at the latest move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition — which prominently features settler leaders — to inflame tensions with the Palestinians and draw condemnation from the international community.
It comes just ahead of a sensitive period that includes the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish festival of Passover, fueling fears of escalation after a recent wave of violence in the West Bank and beyond.
Israel's parliament on Tuesday repealed part of a 2005 law which ordered the dismantling of four Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank and banned new settlement construction in the area.
The law was passed at the same time as Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip — a move made in coordination with the George W. Bush administration and referred to in Israel as “the disengagement.”
The State Department on Tuesday accused Israel of violating assurances it had given to the Bush administration that it would permanently withdraw from that area of the West Bank.
“The action also represents a clear contradiction of undertakings the Israeli government made to the United States nearly 20 years ago,” said Vedant Patel, the State Department deputy spokesperson.
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The Palestinian Authority condemned the legal changes as a violation of international law and called on the Biden administration to do more to put pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion.
The change in law was championed by far-right members of Netanyahu’s government.
Among them was Limor Son Har-Melech, a member of the Jewish Power party, who lived in one of the settlements dismantled in 2005 and was evicted by Israeli soldiers. Her husband was killed in an attack by Palestinian gunmen four years earlier.
“This is a day of endless joy over the historical correction we made here in the Knesset,” she told fellow lawmakers as the law passed in the early hours of Tuesday.
Hours after the Washington meeting, Netanyahu appeared to be trying to find a middle path between the Biden administration and his domestic allies.
In a statement, his office said it welcomed parliament’s decision to repeal parts of what it called “a discriminatory and humiliating law.” However, it added that Israel has “no intention of building new settlements in the area.”
The confrontation over the settlement law is the latest source of friction between the White House and the Israeli government.
Earlier this month, the State Department condemned what it called “repugnant” language by Israel’s far-right finance minister, who called for a Palestinian town to be “erased” after two Israeli brothers were shot dead there by a Hamas gunman.
When the minister, Bezalel Smotrich, visited Washington in mid-March, U.S. officials refused to meet him. Earlier this week, Smotrich claimed there is “no such thing” as Palestinians, sparking widespread outrage and criticism from the U.S., France and others.
And Netanyahu, who returned to power in late December, has still not been invited to a meeting with President Joe Biden. The absence has been noted in Israeli media, including the right-leaning 'Israel Today' paper, which ran a headline this week asking: “Where is Netanyahu’s invitation to the White House?”
The two leaders spoke Sunday after a U.S.-brokered meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials in Egypt about defusing violence in the West Bank.
But according to the White House, Biden also used the call to highlight American concerns over Netanyahu’s plan to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court. The proposed legislation has ignited months of mass protests across Israel and led to an unprecedented military crisis, with some reservists refusing to attend training.
“The President also underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship, that democratic societies are strengthened by genuine checks and balances, and that fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” the White House said.