NEW YORK – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued to fight back publicly on Thursday against White House criticism of recent Israeli construction plans in Jerusalem, telling the US media that he was “baffled” by some of it.
The White House had charged that Israeli actions over the Green Line in Jerusalem, both in the neighborhoods of Givat Hamatos and Silwan, had poisoned the atmosphere and distanced Israel even from its closest friends.
Netanyahu told MSNBC that the criticism of the building plans for 2,610 homes in Givat Hamatos was leveled at a new neighborhood, in which half were earmarked for Palestinians who would live alongside their Jewish neighbors.
“Why not have them live together?” he asked.
But it was the White House’s criticism of Jews moving into Jerusalem’s Israeli Arab neighborhood of Silwan this week that Netanyahu said was “actually baffling to me.”
Netanyahu echoed remarks he made just hours after meeting with US President Barack Obama to Israeli reporters covering the meeting, that just as Arabs have the right to buy and live in property throughout the capital, so do Jews.
In an interview with the Spanish-language Univision network, Netanyahu took issue with the US characterization of them as settlements, explaining that they are neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
“If you said to me that in some city in the United States or in Mexico, or anywhere else, Jews cannot buy apartments, there would be an uproar,” he said.
“You know, there’s not only the freedom of property, but the right of every individual to live where they want, as long as they purchase the apartment legally and don’t expropriate, don’t take over, which isn’t the case here."
“This was a free transaction. So I just want to understand this policy. It flies in the face of American values, and it flies in the face of common sense,” Netanyahu said.
In his briefing with Israeli journalists, Netanyahu declared, “I will also not say that Jews cannot buy property in Jerusalem. There cannot be discrimination between Jews and Arabs.”
Soon after Netanyahu met Obama on Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest harshly condemned the “occupation of residential buildings in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan in east Jerusalem – this is near the Old City – by individuals who are associated with an organization whose agenda, by definition, stokes tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Earnest said that the moves by the Ir David Foundation (Elad) are “provocative acts” that only serve “to escalate tensions at a moment when those tensions have already been high.”
Earnest also slammed Israel in very harsh language for moving forward with planning for homes in the Givat Hamatos area in southern Jerusalem.
The anti-settlement Peace Now group publicized news of the Givat Hamatos plans, just prior to the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, even though the Jerusalem Municipality had itself placed an ad about the project’s final approval in local papers a week earlier on September 24.
“This step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians,” Earnest said. “This 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.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said that a “technical step” was taken on Givat Hamatos at the local level on a plan approved at the regional level over two years ago. Netanyahu said there was no reason to publicize the most recent step on that plan.
Without mentioning Peace Now by name, Netanyahu said the group demonstrated a “lack of national responsibility” by publicizing this in order to “harm the meeting.”
He said that it was not a “coincidence” that Peace Now publicized the information on Wednesday morning, and that it was meant to sabotage his meeting with Obama.
Peace Now executive director Yariv Oppenheimer said on Thursday morning that “Netanyahu has only himself to blame. He is responsible for authorizing building in sensitive areas like Givat Hamatos."
“The prime minister should reserve for himself and his ministers his frustration over the destructive impact of his policies on Israel foreign relations,” Oppenheimer said.
Netanyahu told MSNBC that neither neighborhood came up in his two-hour meeting with Obama, though the US did register their objections to Israel’s settlement policies.
He said that neither the Givat Hamotos development nor the move into Silwan were initiated by the government, and that officials commenting on the issues should know all the information before making statements.
Netanyahu characterized his meeting with Obama, the second this year, as “good” and “deep.” He said the meeting included a discussion about how to translate the new reality in the Middle East into concrete steps to move the peace process with the Palestinians forward.
Netanyahu has called for “out of the box” thinking to leverage newly found common interests between Israel and some key Arab states into momentum on the diplomatic track with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu said that he spoke with Obama at length about the Iranian issue and that the two countries are cooperating closely.
Asked by MSNBC what Israel would do if Obama agreed to a deal with Iran that Israel opposed, Netanyahu replied, “All I will say is that Israel ultimately reserves the right to defend itself.”
Another issue that figured prominently in the Obama-Netanyahu meeting was Islamic State and the US-led campaign against it. In his interviews to the American media he again stressed that Hamas and Islamic State were “brothers,” though not necessarily “twins.”
On MSNBC the prime minister held up a picture of a Hamas man standing menacingly over a man with an orange shirt with his head covered in a bag, just prior to an execution.
Netanyahu said that while it is true Hamas does not behead people, “they put a bullet in their heads. But to the victims and to their families, the horror is just the same.”
After declaring that violent Islamists are not only the enemies of Israel and the US, but of all humanity, he was asked whether Obama understands that.
“Yes I do, absolutely,” he said.
Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he raised the issue of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during his meeting with Obama, saying that with Yom Kippur on the horizon, this was the period of granting forgiveness.
Obama was joined in the meeting by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who met Netanyahu on Sunday evening for a preparatory meeting, and US Ambassador Dan Shapiro. Netanyahu was joined by Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer and National Security Council head Yossi Cohen. The two leaders had a brief one-on-one meeting as well.
Netanyahu left New York Thursday afternoon, and is scheduled to arrive back in Israel Friday morning, a number of hours before Yom Kippur.
He spent the last day of his five-day trip to the US on a media blitz, interviewing with CNN, FOX, and CBS, and meeting with The Wall Street Journal
On Wednesday he interviewed with Univision, MSNBC, and NPR, and earlier in the week met with The New York Times
He met with a number of key editors and publishers of other media outlets, including Bloomberg and Time
.Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.