(photo credit: AP [file])
EU foreign ministers condemned an announcement by Israel on Friday that it will construct new housing units in West Bank settlements.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters the EU's 27 foreign ministers were all against the move, following similar criticism levied by the US
"The announcement made to build new buildings and new settlements exactly at the moment when all the international community is asking Israel for a freeze has been criticized by the ministers of foreign affairs," Frattini said after the ministers completed the first day of a two-day meeting in Stockholm.
Aides to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he would approve hundreds of new housing units in West Bank settlements before considering a temporary freeze in construction.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated EU calls for a complete settlement freeze to spur the restart of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Our position is absolutely clear and that settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace and that obviously anything in East Jerusalem is particularly difficult," Miliband said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was hopeful peace talks could be relaunched on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.
"There are still a lot of negotiations taking place, but I hope very much we will have some good news, I hope around the [UN] General Assembly," Solana said.
EU ministers are supporting US-led efforts to get the Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks. However, pressure by the US, the Europeans and others on Netanyahu to impose a complete halt to settlement construction have so far failed.
Palestinians want an end to it before they consider rejoining peace talks.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the EU was also putting pressure on Arab countries to rebuild ties with Israel. He suggested Arab countries could open trade offices in Israel and open up aviation routes.
The EU comments came after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs reacted strongly to Netanyahu's plan, with a bluntly worded statement condemning the move.
"We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction," it said. "As the president has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop."
The plan "is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the road map" outlining a path to Israeli-Palestinian peace, Gibbs said.
Earlier Friday, Kurt Hoyer, spokesman for the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, said it was "doubtful" the Obama administration had signed off on the decision.
Hoyer said that Washington would be unlikely to accept anything "contrary to the spirit of negotiations they've been undertaking."
Meanwhile, in Paris, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called Netanyahu's plan "unacceptable."
"What the Israeli government said [about the planned construction] is not useful. It is unacceptable for us. We want a freeze on all settlement construction," Abbas said after a meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Echoing comments he made after meeting French President Bernard Kouchner on Thursday, he said a possible tripartite US, Israeli, Palestinian summit in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, was conditional "on steps that are taken beforehand regarding a settlement construction freeze."
Earlier, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also blasted Netanyahu's plan, saying that "the only thing suspended by this announcement will be the peace process."
"This is absolutely unacceptable," he told AFP, speaking by phone from Paris.
Erakat insisted Israel had already responded "with total defiance" to US calls for a settlement freeze.
"The real Israeli official answer is being conducted on the ground by continuing the building of housing units and settlements," he said.
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