Protest mounts over Jewish settlements

22:29, Dec 04 2012

Israeli plans to build Jewish settlements in a sensitive area east of Jerusalem drew criticism from the United States, diplomatic protests from European nations and a Jordanian warning that proceeding could doom peace negotiations for another decade.

Israel's November 30 announcement of approval for construction of 3000 additional homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank is "counterproductive" and will "make it harder to resume direct negotiations to achieve a two-state solution," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

The British and French governments lodged sharper protests, formally summoning Israeli ambassadors to express their concerns about the decision, which includes preliminary steps toward building more Jewish housing in an area known as E-1 between Jerusalem and the West Bank settlement of Maaleh Adumim.

The plan "has the potential to alter the situation on the ground on a scale that threatens the viability of a two-state solution," British Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt said Monday in a statement.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said he was "extremely disappointed" by the settlements decision and called the Israeli ambassador to Canberra to express his nation's concerns, according to an emailed statement.

The US and Europeans have pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for years not to proceed with the E-1 development because it would split northern and southern areas of the West Bank and may cut Palestinians off from east Jerusalem, which they plan as their capital in a future peace accord with Israel.


Building in the E-1 area "would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement Monday.

Netanyahu's decision may lead to a renewed period of tension with US President Barack Obama.

The Israeli action was announced less than 24 hours after Palestinians - over the opposition of Israel and the US - won elevation to "nonmember observer state" status in the United Nations General Assembly.

Israel will continue with its settlement plans "even in the face of international pressure and there will not be a change in the decision," according to a statement issued Monday by Netanyahu's office.

It should "not be a surprise that Israel is not sitting idly by" in the aftermath of the UN vote, which it called a "fundamental violation" of past agreements, according to the statement.

"Israel has built and will continue to build in Jerusalem and any other location of strategic interest."

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said the actions of the Palestinians and Israelis highlight the need for Obama to use the start of a second term to try to resume the peace process.

"If you don't use this opportunity now, I think the whole peace process will be set back a decade," he said in a Bloomberg Government interview in Washington.

Once Obama's inauguration takes place on January 21 and Israeli elections are held the following day, Judeh said, "the parties have to sit down across the table and negotiate. We have to ensure the atmosphere is right for them to sit across the table and see negotiations with a time line, with benchmarks. We don't want to see an open-ended process again."

On taking office in 2009, Obama immediately nominated a special envoy to deal with Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The little momentum that existed evaporated in September 2010 after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month building freeze on West Bank Jewish settlements.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he wouldn't negotiate unless Israel halted construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group, said Netanyahu may have seen an opportunity to make the settlement announcement without much opposition in the wake of the UN action.

Also, Obama is preoccupied with the domestic challenge of averting the so-called fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases, he said.

"The fact is, I'm not sure what can be done about this," Miller said.

"Netanyahu took advantage of a fortuitous set of circumstances."

Exports comprise about 40 per cent of Israel's economic output and Europe is one of its largest markets.

"I'm sure the excellent economic cooperation between Israel and Europe, and Israel and the US, won't be harmed" from the settlements flap, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said at a Jerusalem press briefing Tuesday.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued a statement Sunday denying a report in the Haaretz newspaper that he told US officials the decision to build was primarily due to electoral considerations by Netanyahu's Likud party. Steinitz called the move a "moderate step" in response to the UN vote.

The Palestinian Authority, the UN and the US consider all Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal.

"The settlements are illegal under international law, hurt the confidence needed between the two sides and are an obstacle to a peace built on two states," the French Foreign Ministry said in its daily emailed briefing.

Jordan's Judeh said there is little benefit in debating whether the UN action helps or hurts the peace process.

"You and I can sit there and perhaps agree or disagree on whether it was helpful or not, but it's done," he said.

"At the end of the day, the establishment of the Palestinian state will come through negotiations."

Germany also criticised the settlements decision, which chief government spokesman Steffen Seibert said called into question Israel's readiness to negotiate.

Netanyahu is scheduled to travel tomorrow to Berlin and Prague, where he will also discuss Israel's concerns over Iran's nuclear programme.

"Tomorrow I will accompany the prime minister and foreign minister to Germany and the Czech Republic, where we will hold discussions and explain and sometimes agree to disagree," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in an interview on Army Radio Tuesday.

"There is absolutely no connection, and there can't be any connection, between this subject, the Israel- Palestinian conflict, and the Iranian issue, which threatens the whole world."

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