Ashton to Israel: Stop settlement building now

After Israel announced 1,400 new homes last week, EU foreign policy chief says construction is illegal, threatens peace talks

EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, speaks to the media during a press conference in Nicosia, Cyprus. (photo credit: AP)
EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, speaks to the media during a press conference in Nicosia, Cyprus. (photo credit: AP)

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called on Israel Sunday to halt all construction in the West Bank immediately, and said the building of settlements was detrimental to the ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I was deeply concerned to hear the latest announcement by the Israeli authorities to advance settlement plans once more in the West Bank including East Jerusalem,” Ashton said in a statement.

“The settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make the two-state solution impossible,” she added.

The foreign policy chief stressed that the EU was willing to assist Israel and the Palestinians in achieving a peace accord, but warned that it would be unable to do so if both sides did not uphold their obligations toward advancing such a deal.

“The EU is ready to provide its full support to a peace agreement,” She said.

“At this delicate moment of the negotiation, I call on all the parties to act now to build trust – not undermine it – and to work together for a lasting, just and final settlement of the conflict.’’

The Ministry of Housing and Construction announced Friday that it had approved tenders for 1,400 new housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Friday’s announcement had been expected after Israel released 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in late December, part of a deal made last summer when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has previously issued similar construction announcements to blunt criticism at home of prisoner releases, as many of those released were convicted of killing Israeli civilians and soldiers.

This time, the announcement was apparently postponed until after a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in the region two weeks ago.

On Tuesday, Israeli diplomatic sources said Kerry was behind a recent wave of European threats to boycott settlement products, and intends to use these threats against Israel should the current series of peace talks fail.

Kerry, according to sources cited in an Army Radio report, has encouraged various European countries behind the scenes in their efforts to initiate bans on the import of products originating in the West Bank settlements, but has taken pains to ensure that such actions remain “a threat” only.

US officials denied the report.

The idea of boycotting or labeling settlement products has gained momentum in Europe over the last year.

In December, a Dutch water company backed out of a major deal due to Israel’s national water carrier’s activities in the West Bank.

In November, a deal was signed to enable Israel’s participation in the Horizons 2020 joint research program, despite an EU decree, that banned West Bank Israeli institutions from receiving European funding.

In July, a major Dutch supermarket reportedly decided to stop carrying products from the settlements, but later said its policy had been quoted inaccurately.

A Der Spiegel report from early 2013 estimated that Europe imports some $287 million (NIS 1 billion) worth of goods produced beyond the Green Line each year.

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