Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his deputies strongly rejected sharply worded criticism from the Obama administration castigating Israel over plans to build more homes in the eastern part of Jerusalem.
One Israeli cabinet minister said the Obama administration’s “lack of understanding troubles me.”
Following nearly identical statements issued from the White House and State Department accusing Israel of distancing itself from its closest allies and of working to “poison the atmosphere” with the Palestinians and Arab countries, Netanyahu told reporters that he didn’t understand why allowing Jews to legally purchase property in Jerusalem was being criticized. Israel considers east Jerusalem part of its united capital, while Palestinians claim it as their future capital.
“Arabs in Jerusalem freely buy apartments, and nobody says that is forbidden. I will also not say that Jews cannot buy property in Jerusalem. There cannot be discrimination between Jews and Arabs,” Netanyahu said Wednesday, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as President Barack Obama speaks during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
“This is a normal process, and I see no reason to discriminate,” Netanyahu said of plans to build homes in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, which is designed to include homes for both Jews and Arabs.
“It’s worth learning the information properly before deciding to take a position like that,” Netanyahu said following the U.S. criticism.
"I think they [the Obama administration] should be acquainted with the facts first. You know? First of all, these are not settlements. These are neighborhoods of Jerusalem. We have Arab neighborhoods and we have Jewish neighborhoods," Netanyahu later told NBC.
Housing Minister Uri Ariel told Army Radio on Thursday morning that the Obama administration’s “lack of understanding troubles me. I'm sure that once it is explained to them that building will occur there for Jews, Arabs and anyone who wishes, then [they] will calm down. Otherwise, it’s more than strange and clearly incomprehensible.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on Thursday also pushed back on the Obama administration criticism.
"I say this firmly and clearly: building in Jerusalem is not poisonous and harmful – rather, it is essential, important and will continue with full force. I will not freeze construction for anyone in Israel's capital,” Barkat said. “Discrimination based on religion, race or gender is illegal in the United States and in any other civilized country."
Shortly after Obama and Netanyahu wrapped up their meeting at the White House Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the planned development "will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere, not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations.”
In a different part of east Jerusalem outside the Old City on Tuesday, several Jewish families moved into homes that had been purchased in the predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan.
"It is the right of Jews to buy an apartment in Jerusalem - I stand firm by my decision, there will not be a situation where Jews will not be able to buy an apartment in Jerusalem," Netanyahu said, according to Israel’s Arutz Sheva.
The Jerusalem Post reported that the seven residences were purchased by Elad, an organization that raises money to buy properties from Palestinians for prices well above market value. Elad bought the homes using Palestinian intermediaries, as sellers in the past have faced intimidation and death threats.
One resident of the neighborhood, a local representative for Fatah, the main faction of the PLO, which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas heads, told the Jerusalem Post that anyone who sold the properties to Jews should be killed.
Fadi Maragha said: “We know who the broker is. He’s living in a town south of Jerusalem. … But he’s rich and he’s protected, including by the Israelis.”
“They think they can drive us out. But we are the landowners. We were here, and we will be here until we have all of Palestine without any Jewish people in it,” Maragha added.
Palestinians who have sold homes to Jews have in the past been killed as so-called collaborators.
Plans for the new east Jerusalem neighborhood were approved by the Israeli government two years ago and were widely publicized at the time, raising a question about why the issue was reignited the precise day Netanyahu was meeting with Obama.
The Times of Israel reported that the left-wing anti-settlement organization Peace Now was the group that circulated news that the Jerusalem municipality last week approved construction for the 2,600 homes, a move Netanyahu described as a “statutory formality that does not require publicizing.”
Netanyahu said it was no “coincidence” that Peace Now circulated news of the technical step on Wednesday morning.
Without citing the group’s name, Netanyahu said it demonstrated a “lack of national responsibility” in order to “harm the meeting.” Netanyahu said the east Jerusalem neighborhoods were not discussed at his meeting with Obama, though the U.S. objection to Israeli settlement activity was noted.