As opposition stiffens, US calls on Israel to pull back from settlement plan

PM’s office says decision to build won’t be reversed; Spain and Denmark join UK, France and Sweden in calling in ambassadors for ‘harsh’ rebuke; PA official praises Europe

A dedication ceremony for a settlement in the E1 bloc in 2009. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A dedication ceremony for a settlement in the E1 bloc in 2009. (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Several European capitals on Monday summoned Israeli ambassadors to sharply express unhappiness over Israel’s plans to significantly expand settlement construction, as anger over the move worldwide continued to simmer.

In Washington, the White House called on Israel to reconsider its plans to develop the controversial E1 tract of land east of Jerusalem in the West Bank.

Yet officials in Jerusalem said they would not back down from the plan, which is seen as a punitive measure against the Palestinians for going to the United Nations to be upgraded to a nonmember observer state.

The foreign ministries of France, Britain, Spain, Denmark and Sweden on Monday summoned and sharply rebuked the Israeli ambassadors to their countries. An Israeli official quoted by Israel Radio said the tone of the rebukes was “harsh and very unpleasant.”

A British Foreign Office spokesman issued a severely worded condemnation of the Israeli government decision on Friday to approve 3,000 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including in the controversial E1 corridor that connects Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim, one of Israel’s largest settlements, and called on Israel to reverse the initiative.

“We deplore the recent Israeli government decision to build 3,000 new housing units and unfreeze development in the E1 block. This threatens the viability of the two-state solution,” the spokesman said. “Any decision about any other measures the UK might take will depend on the outcome of our discussions with the Israeli government and with international partners including the US and European Union.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the administration was calling on Israel to reconsider the plan and urged restraint.

“We urge Israeli leaders to reconsider these unilateral decisions and exercise restraint as these actions are counterproductive and make it harder to resume direct negotiations to achieve a two state solution,” he said.

The US State Department said it “opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem.” In a statement by Mark C. Toner, Washington stated the policy “includes building in the E1 area as this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany and Russia joined the chorus of condemnations, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeting a steady stream of denunciations.

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An official in the Prime Minister’s Bureau responded Monday to European outrage over Israel’s decision to build in the E1 zone. “Israel will fulfill its vital interests even in the face of international pressure and will not reverse its decision,” an unnamed official told Ynet news.

“We should not be surprised that Israel did not sit idly after the Palestinian UN bid,” the official said. “The State of Israel will respond to the Palestinians’ behavior; if they continue to pursue unilateral measures, Israel will act accordingly.”

Critics charge that development of the E1 tract would effectively choke off the northern and southern parts of the West Bank and make a contiguous Palestinian state a near-impossibility.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

The latest round of condemnatory measures came amid reports by Haaretz and Sky News that the UK and France were considering, among other measures, recalling their ambassadors from Israel in response to the Israeli government’s announcement Friday that it was authorizing new construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

A Foreign Ministry official denied that the UK and France were mulling initiatives to recall their ambassadors.

The French and British embassies in Israel declined to comment on the report, but a British Embassy official said Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague “has consistently made it very clear that the UK would not support a strong reaction” to the decision to grant the Palestinians nonmember state status. France denied that it was considering recalling its ambassador from Tel Aviv.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Monday with the consul general of France in the West Bank and asked that France exert pressure on Israel to halt settlement activity, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath praised the Europeans for taking action.

“We’ve been expecting this kind of behavior for a long time,” Shaath said. “For this to come from France and England is very beneficial to us. We highly appreciate it and we are hoping the US will follow their lead.”

In the UN General Assembly vote last week, the UK abstained, while France voted in favor of the motion granting “Palestine” nonmember observer state status, which passed by 138 votes to 9 and which Abbas has hailed as official international recognition of a Palestinian state.

Israel has come under intense international criticism for the construction decision. On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson issued a scathing rebuke, saying that the move “risks completely cutting off East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank” and that “it would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution.”

A view of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, with controversial E1 tract in the background (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A view of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, with controversial E1 tract in the background (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Foreign Ministry officials on Monday lamented the fact that it was Israel’s reaction to the UN vote recognizing the Palestinians as a nonmember observer state, rather than the PA’s own unilateral move to upgrade its status, that was setting the international agenda.

But Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, a member of Netanyahu’s inner circle of nine ministers, rejected the mounting pressure on the government. “Anyone who thinks Ma’aleh Adumim is not going to be connected to Jerusalem is mistaken,” he told Army Radio on Monday.

Tzipi Livni, the head of the newly formed Hatnua (The Movement) party, slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the wake of the reports, saying recent developments were proof that the prime minister’s diplomatic strategy was detrimental to Israeli interests. In the past month, with Operation Pillar of Defense and Netanyahu’s management of the Palestinian United Nations bid, Livni charged, the prime minister had “founded a Hamas state in Gaza and a Palestinian state in the UN, and now, with his reaction, he’s painting Israel internationally as the culprit.”

The Finance Ministry on Sunday announced that it would withhold NIS 450 million in tax revenues that were to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority and instead use the money to offset debts to Israel, in what is widely perceived as an additional punitive measure against the Palestinians.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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