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March 23, 2023 8:26 am

US Summons Israeli Ambassador as Crisis in Relations Deepens


avatar by Andrew Bernard

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the Hyatt Regency in Tashkent, Uzbekistan March 1, 2023. Photo: Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS

The United States on Tuesday evening summoned Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog over Israel’s repeal of a 2005 disengagement law as the crisis in relations between the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Biden administration deepens.

“Deputy Secretary [Wendy Sherman] conveyed U.S. concern regarding legislation passed by the Israeli Knesset rescinding important aspects of the 2005 Disengagement Law, including the prohibition on establishing settlements in the northern West Bank,” the US readout of the meeting said. “They also discussed the importance of all parties refraining from actions or rhetoric that could further inflame tensions leading into the Ramadan, Passover, and Easter holidays.”

The United States has not summoned Israel’s ambassador since March 2010, when Michael Oren was demarched over the announcement of 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem that spoiled a visit by then-Vice President Joe Biden.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Vedant Patel on Tuesday said that the United States was “extremely troubled” by the Knesset’s vote to repeal parts of a 2005 disengagement law that forcibly evacuated settlers from four West Bank settlements as part of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and called the measure “particularly provocative and counterproductive.

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“It is all the more concerning that such a piece of legislation passed with just 31 ‘yes’ votes out of an assembly of 120 members,” Patel said. “The action also represents a clear contradiction of undertaking the Israeli government made to the United States.”

Netanyahu on Wednesday hit back at the Biden administration’s criticism.

“The Knesset decision to repeal parts of the Disengagement Law brings to an end to a discriminatory and humiliating law that barred Jews from living in areas in northern Samaria, part of our historic homeland,” the Prime Minister’s office said in a statement. “It is no coincidence that senior figures in the opposition have supported this law over the years. However, the Government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas.”

The Biden administration has struggled to calibrate its stance towards the new Netanyahu government since it took office in December. Billed by both its supporters and detractors as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, Netanyahu’s agenda and cabinet picks have provoked a level of criticism from the US not seen since the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

While the two leaders spoke by phone on Monday, Tuesday’s vote potentially undermines an agreement reached in Sharm El Sheikh on Sunday between the Israelis and Palestinians brokered by the United States to avoid “unilateral measures” for the next 3-6 months.

Speaking at the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken refused to speculate about the “hypothetical” of whether Netanyahu had violated his agreement with the US, but said that both the Israelis and Palestinians want the US to be engaged in reducing violence in the West Bank.

“If either or both sides are not doing what we believe is necessary to get there, it will be hard or maybe futile for us to do that,” Blinken said.

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