Netanyahu refuses to rescind settlement decision

Condemnations from int’l community pour in, as 5 EU countries summon Israeli envoys to protest decision.

Maaleh Adumim 370 Dec 2012 (photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Maaleh Adumim 370 Dec 2012
(photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pushed back on Monday against intense international pressure to reconsider plans for building 3,000 housing units in east Jerusalem and the West Bank and stepping up the planning of the controversial E1 site, saying no one should expect Israel to sit on its hands in light of Palestinian unilateral steps at the UN.
As one European country after the next called in their Israeli ambassadors to protest the settlement plans, a source in the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying Israel would “continue to stand up for its vital interests even in the face of international pressure.”
The official said there would be no change in the decision made Friday to build 3,000 housing units in the large settlement blocs, and Israel would go ahead with planning and zoning work for the E1 area linking Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim northeast of the capital.
“The Palestinian unilateral moves at the UN are a blatant and fundamental violation of agreements to which the international community was a guarantor,” the official said. “No one should be surprised that Israel is not sitting with its arms folded in response to the unilateral Palestinian steps.”
The source added that Israel would take further steps if the Palestinians went ahead with more unilateral moves of their own.
The plans, however, triggered what one Israeli source described as the worst diplomatic crisis Israel has faced in the last 20 years.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing that the US urged Israel 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. We reiterate our long-standing opposition to Israeli settlement activity and east Jerusalem construction.”
European Foreign Ministries summon Israeli envoys
The foreign ministries of Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark were not content with just condemning the move, and called in the Israeli ambassador in their respective capitals to protest the move and urge Jerusalem to reconsider. Russia also slammed the decision.
The UK’s Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office’s minister for the Middle East, said that Israeli envoy Daniel Taub was summoned following the decision to build 3,000 units, “unfreeze” planning in E1 and withhold NIS 400 million in tax revenue from the PA in order to pay its debt to the Israel Electric Corporation.
“I set out the depth of the UK’s concern about these decisions and I called on the Israeli government to reverse them,” Burt said. “The settlements plan in particular has the potential to alter the situation on the ground on a scale that threatens the viability of a two-state solution.”
The British minster for the Middle East said he made clear that “the strength of [the UK’s] reaction stems from [its] disappointment that the Israeli government has not heeded the calls that [it] and others had made for Israel to avoid reacting to the UN General Assembly resolution in a way that undermines the Palestinian Authority or a return to talks.”
Burt said nothing about the possibility of recalling Britain’s ambassador to Israel, as was initially reported.
A Foreign Office spokesman said, “Any decision about any other measures the UK might take will depend on the outcome of our discussions with the Israeli government and with international partners, including the US and European Union.”
The EU’s 27 foreign ministers are scheduled to convene for their monthly meeting on Monday, and this issue – and a wider EU response – is expected to figure prominently in the discussions.
The issue is also expected to be raised when Netanyahu meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who in the past has been very critical of Israel’s settlement policies – in Berlin on Thursday.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert issued a statement saying his country was “very worried” about the Israeli decision and said that “now is the time to make possible a renewal of the negotiations.”
In this context, he said, the Israeli move “sends a negative message” and “undermines faith in Israel’s intention to negotiate.”
France, meanwhile, denied reports that it intended to recall its envoy, with a French spokesman saying, “We have other means to express our protest.”
The spokesman said that Israeli Ambassador Yossi Gal was called in and told that France condemned the Israeli settlement enterprise “in all its forms. They are illegal in the view of international law, harm the trust necessary for a renewal of negotiations and are an obstacle to a just peace based on a two-state solution.”
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The French spokesman added that construction in E1 would deal a harsh blow to the idea of two states since it would “isolate Jerusalem, which is supposed to turn into the capital of two states, from the West Bank and threaten the territorial contiguity of the future Palestinian state.”
One diplomatic official said the harsh European response reflected four years of frustration at Israel for ignoring their requests to stop settlement construction and allow for more Palestinian activity in Area C – while being asked by Jerusalem for support on the Iranian issue, against Hamas and against the Palestinian bid at the Security Council.
“The Europeans feel that they are asked for quite a bit from Israel, but that their own requests are ignored,” the official explained.
He said that the Europeans were trying to send a message to Israel that they would no longer suffice with issuing condemnations that were ignored, but would begin taking concrete action on the ground.
The official said that at the very least, EU efforts to label products from the settlements were likely to pick up steam as a result of this move, as would attempts to create a “blacklist “ of “violent settlers” who will be barred entry into Europe.
The EU held a meeting last week in Brussels on the settlement labeling issue.
The problem with these moves, one Israeli source said, is “you know where they start, but then they can take on a dynamic of their own, and you don’t know where they will end.”
One government official, however, slammed what he said was Europe’s disproportionate response. The official asked where the EU’s outrage was when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Hamas’s launching of rockets on Israeli civilian targets, or when he accused Israel of tunneling under the Temple Mount to destroy the Aksa Mosque or when he denied any Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
The source described Israel’s move as a “proportionate and measured” response to Abba’s support of Hamas rockets on Israel, the UN move, his hate-filled speech in the UN and the fact that the only reconciliation the PA leader has signaled since going to the UN was with Hamas, not Israel.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped Britain and France were considering recalling their envoys from Israel over its E1 plans.
He said building in E1 “destroys the two-state solution, [and the establishing of] east Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and practically ends the peace process and any opportunity to talk about negotiations in the future.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the settlement plans were “an insult to the international community, which should bear responsibility for Israeli violations and attacks on Palestinians.”
Controversial Ramat Shlomo building project resurfaces
In a related development, the Interior Ministry’s District Planning and Construction Committee will discuss in two weeks another controversial project, the 1600 units in Ramat Shlomo that initiated the infamous “Biden Fiasco,” according to deputy mayor Yossi Deitsch (United Torah Judaism).
Deitsch, who also sits on the District Committee, told reporters he wanted to advance the project in order to show Jerusalem’s sovereign right to build in the capital.
The Ramat Shlomo project was approved for deposit during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit in March 2010, causing a diplomatic crisis with the United States as Biden felt the announcement was a personal affront. Following the incident, the Prime Minister’s Office instituted “increased mechanisms” to ensure they are involved and updated about all east Jerusalem building projects. The discussion is set for December 17 in the District Committee.
Ramat Shlomo is one of five neighborhoods ringing Jerusalem – along with Gilo, Ramot, Pisgat Ze’ev and east Talpiyot, which are located across the Green Line. The District Planning and Construction Committee last discussed the project in August 2011, during the height of the social justice tent protests, when Yishai trumpeted the project as a way to build affordable housing for young people.
Hagit Ofran, the head of the Settlement Watch Project at Peace Now, said the timing was part of the large settlement push with the announcement of the resumption of the approval process for E1.
“The government is continuing to advance everything they can,” said Ofran. “I don’t know what they’re thinking of themselves, but they’re doing everything they can to avoid a two-state solution.”
Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.