Israel holds firm on settlements, world outcry grows
JERUSALEM - Agence France-Presse
Bedouins ride donkeys in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem December 3, 2012. Israel will not backtrack on a settlement expansion plan that has drawn strong international condemnation, an official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said on Monday. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Israel's government on Tuesday stood firm in the face of mounting international pressure as it pushed ahead with a swathe of settlement plans seen as threatening the viability of a future Palestinian state.
Israel showed no sign of changing its stance even as Australia became the latest nation to summon the Israeli ambassador to protest plans to build 3,000 new settler homes in a critical area of the West Bank near Jerusalem.
Late on Monday, Israel -- which is in the middle of an election campaign -- said it would also revive plans for another 1,600 homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
"Are new homes in our capital Jerusalem really more dangerous to the peace process than the Palestinian Authority's refusal to talk peace and to recognise Israel?" tweeted Ofir Gendelman, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel's settlement plans have always raised hackles but Friday's proposals -- seen as payback for the Palestinians securing the UN rank of a non-member state a day earlier -- are considered particularly contentious as such construction would effectively cut the West Bank in half.
The area in question is a corridor of West Bank land called E1 which runs between the easternmost edge of annexed east Jerusalem and the nearby Maaleh Adumim settlement.
Should construction in E1 go ahead, connecting Jerusalem with Maaleh Adumim, it will make the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state almost impossible.
Israeli plans for E1 have been in the works since the early 1990s but have never been implemented due to heavy pressure, largely from the United States.
The international outcry since Friday's move has been intense, with UN chief Ban Ki-moon warning that should Israel build in E1, "it would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution." On Monday, France, Britain, Spain, Denmark and Sweden all summoned the Israeli ambassadors to protest the plans, which also drew criticism from Russia, Germany and Japan.
"The Europeans have removed the kid gloves. We have not seen such an extreme reaction to an Israeli decision in recent years," a senior Israeli diplomat told the top-selling Yediot Aharonot. Other diplomats quoted by the paper were quick to point out that such a coordinated move by so many countries was likely to have been done with the approval of Washington.
"The White House authorised Europe to pounce on the Netanyahu government and to punish it," wrote Yediot columnist Shimon Shiffer.
"It has to do with the Obama administration's recognition that a path has to be found to conclude the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians." Washington has been deeply angered by Netanyahu's decision to move forward construction on E1, which the State Department on Monday described as "particularly sensitive," warning that construction there "would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution." And President Barack Obama's spokesman Jay Carney urged Israel's leadership "to reconsider these unilateral decisions and exercise restraint as these actions are counterproductive." On Tuesday, Australia also summoned the Israeli envoy, with Foreign Minister Bob Carr describing Israel's decision to unfreeze planning in E1 as "especially counter-productive." He also condemned Israel's withholding of tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority.
But Israel has showed no sign of bending as Netanyahu ploughs towards general elections in January, which he is expected to easily win. "There will be no change in the decision that has been made," a source in Netanyahu's office said on Monday. Several hours later, an interior ministry spokeswoman confirmed Israel had revived plans for 1,600 new settler homes in Ramat Shlomo, which caused a major diplomatic rift with Washington when it was first announced in March 2010.
Israel has not given details or a timeframe for the new settlement construction, which drew praise from hardline commentators. "History proves that every time we insisted on our positions and were prepared to clash, the West has always capitulated, because justice was ours," wrote Dror Eidar in the Israel HaYom freesheet, which openly backs Netanyahu.
"The 3,000 housing units are a first and very modest step. More will follow. Fear not, Israel."