Israel rejects European pressure over settlements

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JERUSALEM — Five European nations summoned Israeli ambassadors on Monday to denounce Israel’s latest settlement construction push, deepening the rift between the Jewish state and European allies over the Palestinians’ successful U.N. statehood bid.

Although Europe considers all Israeli settlement construction illegal, the summoning of ambassadors in France, Britain, Sweden, Spain and Denmark to accuse Israel of undermining already troubled peace efforts was an unusually strong expression of displeasure. It came at a time when Israel was already smarting over Europe’s failure to back the Jewish state in its campaign against the statehood move.

The settlement issue is at the heart of the four-year freeze in Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Palestinians demand a halt in construction before talks resume, while Israel insists on negotiations with no preconditions.

The Europeans were furious over Israel’s announcement Friday that it would move ahead on plans to build 3,000 settler homes to punish the Palestinians for winning U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine in territories Israel captured in 1967.

Israel also said it would begin planning work on an especially sensitive piece of land outside Jerusalem that it has refrained from developing because of U.S. pressure. A meeting with developers and other interested parties was to take place Wednesday, though officials have stressed that it could be years before actual construction begins.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office insisted Israel would press ahead with its latest settlement construction plans, despite the strong European pressure.

Israel will continue to stand up for its essential interests even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision taken,” the statement read. “The Palestinians’ unilateral step at the U.N. is a blatant and fundamental violation of the agreements vouched on by the international community. It should come as no surprise that Israel did not sit idly by following the Palestinians’ unilateral steps.”

After a flurry of angry phone calls from European capitals to Israel over the weekend, France called in the Israeli envoy to Paris late Monday morning.

France, the first major European country to announce support for the Palestinian statehood effort, also sent a letter to the Israeli government, calling the settlement decision “a considerable obstacle to the two-state solution.”

Britain, which abstained in the U.N. vote, urged Israel to reverse the decision, summoning the Israeli envoy to the Foreign Office. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told parliament that “together with other EU countries we will discuss other potential steps,” but he would not elaborate.

British officials said London was looking to Washington to take the lead, and that British diplomats were meeting with American counterparts on Monday.

None of the four European governments openly threatened concrete measures to punish Israel.

“Our ambassadors were called in, and the countries protested about the announcement about the intention to do further construction in settlements,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Monday with the consul general of France in the West Bank and asked France to press Israel to halt settlement activity, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.

Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath praised the Europeans for taking action.

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