The United States on Monday harshly criticized Israel's plans to build more housing in Jerusalem neighborhoods over the green line.
"The United States opposes new Israeli construction in east Jerusalem," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement, calling the city a "permanent status issue" to be resolved through negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Neither party should engage in efforts or take actions that could unilaterally pre-empt, or appear to pre-empt, negotiations," he said. "Rather, both parties should return to negotiations without preconditions as soon as possible."
A State Department official told The Jerusalem Post that Israel had informed the Americans of the move ahead of its announcement, and that Washington had conveyed its displeasure at the decision.
"The government of Israel noted its plans to issue tenders in east Jerusalem and we strongly objected, noting that these types of announcements harm peace efforts," the official said.
Still, Gibbs ended his statement on a positive note, saying that "we believe that through good faith negotiations the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem, and safeguards its status for people around the world."
Gibbs' statement came on the heels of an announcement made earlier Monday by government spokesman Mark Regev, which stated that nearly 700 apartments had been approved for construction in the existing Jewish neighborhoods of Neveh Ya'akov, Pisgat Ze'ev and Har Homa.
"We make a distinction between the West Bank and Jerusalem," Regev said regarding the new plans. "Jerusalem is our capital and remains such."
Responding to the American displeasure, senior government officials on Monday evening stressed that the US had not been surprised by the announcement of the new building projects in the three existing neighborhoods.
"We have full transparency with the Americans," one official said. "There are no surprises."
Not in direct reference to this issue, Israel's ambassador to the US Michael Oren told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that it was clear that the US and Israel had differences of opinion on Jerusalem, but that these differences were not new and preceded the current administration by decades.
"The American position [on Jerusalem] has remained unchanged in some ways since 1948, and in certain ways since 1967," Oren said. "America has never, going back to [US President Harry] Truman, never recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. And in 1967, America's policy, starting with the Johnson administration, was that it was opposed to any attempt to what they called 'alter the demographic reality by unilateral measures.'"
That has always been the US policy, Oren said, and what changes from administration to administration is not the policy, but how vigorously it is applied.
"There has been no departure from policy in Obama's position," he said, "just a greater willingness to apply it."
He said that rather than continually pressing him on the issue, a pattern has developed whereby when there are announcements of new projects in east Jerusalem, the US raises its objections and states its position on Jerusalem, which is then followed by Israel reiterating its position.
Government spokesmen stressed that the approvals of new housing in Jerusalem was part of a plan calling for the construction of some 6,500 units throughout the country, including 2,000 in Arab-Israeli and Druse areas. A decision to exclude Jerusalem from this list would be tantamount to accepting the Palestinian condition that all construction must stop in east Jerusalem before peace negotiations could be restarted, something the government was not willing to do.
Indeed, as news of the construction plans for the three existing Jewish neighborhoods circulated on Monday, the Jerusalem Municipality announced that it was in the process of authorizing 500 new housing units in Silwan, primarily for the east Jerusalem neighborhood's Arab residents.
Although municipality officials on Monday afternoon downplayed the link between the plans in Silwan and Regev's announcement, the plan for Silwan includes the rezoning of the western slopes of the neighborhood to permit residential construction of up to four floors. Currently, homes in Silwan are limited to two floors.
"Such a re-zoning would allow for legalized housing for about 500 families in Silwan and an addition of 500 new housing units to be issued permits, totaling an addition of 1,000 housing units to the area," a statement from the municipality read.
Municipality figures show some 71 structures with valid demolition orders in this area of Silwan alone, but only 10 of them currently exceed four stories in height.
If approved by the City Council, however, the municipality said that the plan would provide "solutions for the lack of affordable housing in the area and allow for about 90 percent of the housing violations to be theoretically legalized."