Israel's decision to expand Jewish settlements on occupied West Bank land has caused tensions with ally Washington / © AFP/File
The United States on Tuesday forcefully criticized Israel for the first time in years on its settlements, with President Joe Biden's administration saying it "strongly" opposed new construction on the West Bank.
The reaction comes after four years under Donald Trump in which the United States offered a green light to Israel's activity on occupied Palestinian land, with his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, touring a settlement at the end of his tenure.
The State Department under Biden had repeatedly warned against settlement construction and on Tuesday sharply criticized Israel after it moved ahead.
"We are deeply concerned about the Israeli government's plan to advance thousands of settlement units" on Wednesday as well as tenders published Sunday for more than 1,300 homes, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
"We strongly oppose the expansion of settlements, which is completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and to ensure calm, and it damages the prospects for a two-state solution," he told reporters.
"We also view plans for the retroactive legalization of illegal outposts as unacceptable."
Price stopped short of saying the decision would jeopardize relations with Israel. But he said that the administration would "raise this issue directly with senior Israeli officials in our private sessions."
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken take part in a joint news conference at the State Department on October 13, 2021 / © POOL/AFP/File
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a right-winger close to the settlement movement, although he leads a coalition with centrists who seek to preserve stable relations with the United States.
Housing Minister Zeev Elkin is part of the right-wing New Hope party and said the settlements were "essential to the Zionist vision" of strengthening Jewish presence in the West Bank.
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Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh had urged Washington to "confront" Israel on the settlements, which he described as "aggression."
About 475,000 Israeli Jews live in settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal under international law, on land Palestinians claim as part of their future state.
A winemaker holds a bottle of his red blend named after then US secretary of state Mike Pompeo at the Psagot Winery, a West Bank settlement he visited in November 2020 / © AFP/File
The Trump administration, which was backed by evangelical Christians who see biblical reasons for supporting a Jewish homeland, revised longstanding State Department guidance and said it did not consider settlements illegal.
It was a sharp shift from the previous Democratic administration of Barack Obama who faced open criticism from Israel's veteran right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly over US diplomacy with Iran.
In one of its last acts, the Obama administration declined to exercise the routine US veto at the UN Security Council and allowed a resolution against Israeli settlements to pass through.
While Biden has long ties with the Jewish state, many in his Democratic Party have increasingly opposed Israeli policies, especially under Netanyahu.
In June, dozens of Democratic lawmakers wrote an open letter to Biden urging him to "consistently and proactively" issue "firm public condemnations" of actions that could jeopardize the peace process.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist who engineered the coalition to oust Netanyahu, accused the previous government of putting Israel at risk through a partisan alliance with Trump and has pledged to work through disagreements quietly.
Lapid last month proposed a development plan for the impoverished Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Islamist militants Hamas who fought a war with Israel in May, but conceded that the idea was not supported across the government.