International pressure mounts on Israel to cancel West Bank building

Ammar Awad/Reuters - A view of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem on Dec. 3. A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel will not backtrack on a settlement expansion plan.

JERUSALEM — Israel came under mounting international pressure Monday to rescind a decision to build 3,000 homes in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem and advance plans for construction seen as critically damaging prospects for a viable Palestinian state.

The United States reiterated its criticism of the moves, urging their reversal, and five European nations summoned Israeli ambassadors to lodge formal protests against the settlement construction push, announced in response to a successful Palestinian bid for recognition as a U.N. non-member observer state.    

(Gene Thorp)

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However, an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that despite the strong diplomatic backlash, Israel would not back down.

“Israel will continue to stand by its vital interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision that was made,” said the official, who was not authorized to talk to the media on the record. He added that the Palestinians’ U.N. bid violated agreements with Israel that had been “guaranteed by the international community.”   

The wave of condemnation strained Israel’s relations with Washington and deepened a rift with European allies that had abstained from or voted for a General Assembly resolution passed last week that elevated the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations. 

The United States voted against the resolution but criticized the Israeli settlement plans, saying they harmed efforts to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A State Department spokesman reiterated that criticism Monday, saying that planned building in a sensitive West Bank area near Jerusalem was “especially damaging” to peace efforts. The White House urged Israel “to reconsider these actions.”      

Paul Hirschson, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the focus of the European protests, much like the American concerns, was Israel’s decision to proceed with planning for construction in the area east of Jerusalem known as E-1, linking the city to the settlement town of Maaleh Adumim.

Israel suspended work there several years ago under strong pressure from Washington, which warned that the development would drive a wedge between the northern and southern West Bank and isolate it from East Jerusalem, undermining the possibility of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state.   

“The emphasis is on E-1,” Hirschson said of the messages conveyed to Israeli ambassadors in Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark. “They’re not happy, and they’re protesting, but it does not go down to the level of threats.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz had reported that Britain and France were considering recalling their ambassadors to Israel, but French and British officials denied the report.

Germany and Russia also expressed strong displeasure over the Israeli moves, warning that they undermined efforts to resume peace negotiations. Netanyahu is due to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday. Russia is a member of the international Middle East mediation group known as the Quartet.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “grave concern and disappointment,” warning in a statement Sunday that building in the E-1 area “would represent an almost fatal blow to the remaining chances of securing a two-state solution.”

Rejecting the chorus of criticism, Netanyahu pledged at a cabinet meeting Sunday to “carry on building in Jerusalem and in all the places that are on the map of Israel’s strategic interests.” He compared the move to a settlement drive announced in 1975 by the Israeli government in response to a U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism.  

Part of Sunday’s cabinet meeting was devoted to what was termed incitement against Israel by the Palestinian Authority, including a U.N. speech delivered last week by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

According to an account of the briefing provided by Netanyahu’s office, he said the Palestinian rhetoric was proof “that this is not a dispute over land, but a denial of the existence of the State of Israel.”

“The Palestinians want to use the diplomatic process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying. “Going to the U.N. is part of this.”

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