Israel Building Plan Prompts Diplomatic Protest by 5 Nations

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JERUSALEM -- Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark summoned the Israeli ambassadors to their countries on Monday to protest Israel's plans for increased settlement construction, an unusually sharp diplomatic step that reflected the growing frustration abroad with Israel's policies on the Palestinian issue.

After the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly last week to upgrade the status of the Palestinians at the United Nations, Israel announced plans for 3,000 more housing units in contested areas east of Jerusalem and around the West Bank.

Israel raised particular alarms with its decision to continue planning and zoning work for the development of a contentious area known as E1, a project vehemently opposed internationally because it would partially separate the northern and southern West Bank, harming the prospects of a contiguous Palestinian state.

The move raised questions in Israel about whether the country's leaders were putting domestic political interests ahead of its foreign relations, with Israeli elections scheduled for late January.

"Bibi had to do something" in response to the United Nations vote, said Prof. Shmuel Sandler of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan Universiy, referring to the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, by his nickname, "first because he is Bibi and second because of the elections."

Mr. Sandler said that Mr. Netanyahu, a conservative, was making the mistake of competing against those further to his right, adding, "But I don't think he expected such a reaction" internationally.

Yet Israel remained defiant. The prime minister's office issued a statement on Monday, saying, "Israel will continue to stand for its essential interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision it has taken."

A press officer for United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement on Sunday that construction in E1 "would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution."

European countries long opposed to Israeli settlement construction went beyond their usual statements of condemnation.

The countries that called in the Israeli ambassadors "expressed their strong protests about the announced settlement plans," said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Palmor said that the Israeli ambassadors told their hosts that Israel has been warning for months that the Palestinian bid at the United Nations would not go unanswered and would have implications.

Israel has described the bid as a unilateral Palestinian step that violates previous signed agreements. The Palestinians have long refused to negotiate with Israel without a halt in settlement construction.

France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark voted for the Palestinian upgrade, while Britain abstained. Although Israel had expected the resolution to pass, officials here expressed disappointment over the lack of support from several friendly European nations. Israel was particularly surprised by Germany's decision to abstain in the vote, having expected Germany to go with Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Germany this week. Despite the so-called special relationship between Israel and Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has not minced words about her opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the past.

Philippe Lalliot, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said in a statement on Monday that "Settlement activity is illegal under international law, hurts the confidence necessary for a return to dialogue and constitutes an obstacle to a just peace founded on the two-state solution."

The British Foreign Office said it deplored the Israeli settlement plans and that it had called on the Israeli government to reverse the decision.

But Israeli officials denied that the government's policies were isolating Israel.

"It is well known that Europe and Israel have a different approach on settlements," said one Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There is nothing new here. If European countries would have behaved differently in their vote at the United Nations last week," he continued, "we may have reacted differently."

Analysts here said that after showing strong support for Israel during its military campaign last month against Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, European countries had felt the need to bolster the more moderate Palestinian wing led by President Mahmoud Abbas in its United Nations bid.

At the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said, "Today we are building and we will continue to build in Jerusalem and in all areas that are on the map of the strategic interests of the State of Israel."

But beyond the tit-for-tat measures set off by the United Nations vote, analysts pointed to a trend of deteriorating relations between Israel and Europe in particular.

"That is because the top-level people making decisions here in recent years are completely insular and out of touch with the rest of the world, especially regarding the Palestinians and the settlements," said Mark Heller, a foreign-policy analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Self-righteousness may be good for domestic politics," he said, but it is not a policy."

At the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, 138 nations voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinians and 41 abstained. The nine that voted against it were Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and Palau.

Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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