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US ratchets up criticism of Israel on settlements
In an unusual move, the US has stepped up its criticism of Israel as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took an uncompromising stance on plans to expand settlement building despite strong international condemnation.
Breaking with precedent, the United States adopted a stronger tone toward Israel on Monday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood firm on plans to expand settlement building despite international criticism.
The Obama administration’s tougher-than-usual words came after five European governments summoned Israeli ambassadors in their capitals to express concern over the new settlement projects. However, Washington stopped short of threatening any concrete measures against its close ally Israel.
“We have made clear to the Israeli government that such action is contrary to US policy opposing unilateral action, including settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
“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.
‘Such action is contrary to US policy’
The US displayed a marked shift in tone after a recent display of close cooperation - including US backing for Israel in last month’s Gaza crisis and it’s oppositions to the Palestinians bid for UN recognition of de facto statehood.
Israel first announced its plans to build 3,000 new houses in settlements on Friday, just a day after the UN General Assembly upgraded the Palestinians’ status in the world body from “observer entity” to “non-member state” over Israeli and US objections. The move quickly drew international criticism, yet despite the diplomatic pressure, Israel vowed to move ahead with the plan.
While White House spokesperson Carney’s words go further in criticising Israel than the US has in the past, President Barack Obama has had a history of strained ties with Netanyahu dating back to the US leader’s failed efforts to secure a durable freeze on Israeli settlement activity early in his term. Since then, the Obama administration has routinely disapproved of plans to build more settlements, but has never gone quite so far as to publicly pressure Israel into reversing course.
However, when asked whether Israel would face any consequences if it went ahead with construction, Carney said, “I don’t have anything additional to provide to you on that.”
Israel’s seemingly uncompromising stance on building more settlements is likely to complicate relations with several countries. French President François Hollande said earlier on Monday that he hoped to persuade Israel to scrap its plan. Hollande, however, said France would not impose sanctions on Israel.
Hollande spoke hours after France and Britain showed their disapproval of Netanyahu’s plans by summoning their Israeli envoys, with Sweden and Denmark soon following suit.
The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had “expressed France’s deep concern” over the settlements to the Israeli envoy.
“The ambassador was reminded that France condemns Israeli settlements in all forms which are illegal under international law,” the ministry said.
The project has also provoked anger in Britain, where the Foreign Office warned of a “strong reaction”, condemning the settlement plan and saying it had asked Tel Aviv to reverse its decision.
Hopes of peace threatened
“Construction in the E1 area would seriously undermine the two-state solution, isolating Jerusalem – the intended capital of the two states – from the West Bank and threatening the viability of a future Palestinian state,” the French Foreign Ministry also said.
The chairman of the politics department at the American University of Paris, Hall Gardner, told FRANCE 24 that the summoning of ambassadors was a sign Europe was taking the lead in trying to solve the crisis.
“European countries are trying to play the mediator role, knowing that the US has been unable to move forward on this,” Gardner said. “There won’t be much of a viable Palestinian state if these settlements continue.”
The decision to build in a key E1 area east of Jerusalem drew protests not only from the US and Europe, but from UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who on Sunday warned it would deal an "almost fatal blow" to the prospects of resolving the conflict.
E1 is a highly contentious area of the West Bank that runs between the easternmost edge of annexed east Jerusalem and the Maaleh Adumim settlement.
Palestinians bitterly oppose the project, as it would effectively cut the occupied West Bank in two, north to south, and sever it from Jerusalem, thus making the creation of a viable Palestinian state even more problematic.
Punishing the Palestinians?
Jean-Paul Chagnollaud, professor of political science at the University of Cergy-Pontoise near Paris, told FRANCE 24 that Israel’s expansion into the E1 zone was aimed at “punishing” Palestinians for pushing for enhanced status at the UN last week.
“The Israeli goal is absolutely clear,” Chagnollaud said. “They want to split up the Palestinian territory to prevent the creation of any viable state.”
Besides authorising 3,000 new homes, the Israeli government also agreed to expedite planning for thousands more homes on barren land near Jerusalem that critics say would kill off Palestinian hopes of establishing a state.
In another blow to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Israel announced on Sunday that it was withholding Palestinian tax revenues this month worth about $100 million.
Israel said it was taking the money to help cover a Palestinian debt of $200 million with the Israeli Electric Corporation.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)