Wednesday December 19, 2012

PARIS -- Germany and the three other West European members of the U.N. Security Council are preparing a statement condemning Israel’s latest settlement plans in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, two European diplomatic officials said Tuesday.

Permanent council members Britain and France plus Germany and Portugal -- who are wrapping up two-year terms -- are concerned that such settlements could threaten a possible two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, the officials said. Details of the statement are being finalized in New York, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity because the work was not yet completed.

The two officials said the statement of condemnation will be presented to council members, but the European countries are not seeking to have it approved as an official statement by the council or as a resolution -- most likely because of near-certain opposition by the United States, Israel’s closest ally.

The European statement is likely to be issued on Wednesday, said a U.N. diplomat in New York, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations have been private.

The move stems from a string of recent Israeli settlement announcements, the diplomats said, including one on Monday in which Israel said it will push forward with plans to build 1,500 apartments in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ hoped-for capital.


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The statement by key European countries on the U.N.’s most powerful body would be a symbolic, but nonetheless high-profile show of displeasure with the Israelis.

The U.S.government on Tuesday also stepped up its criticism, delivering a rare blunt rebuke to its top Mideast ally for its new settlement construction. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland accused Israel of engaging in a "pattern of provocative action" that runs counter to the government’s commitment to peace.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday called all Israeli settlements "illegal under international law." He urged Israel to reverse its latest expansion plan in east Jerusalem, warning that if implemented "it would make a negotiated two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, very difficult to achieve."

The European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner, has been increasingly vocal in its criticism of new settlements just as Israel is gearing up for general elections next month. In an unprecedented move, a string of European governments summoned their local Israeli ambassadors to lodge protests following the Israeli settlement announcements.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unshaken by the criticism, and on Tuesday he vowed to continue building in east Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the state of Israel, and we will continue to build there. A united Jerusalem expresses a wide national agreement," he said in the northern Israeli town of Acre.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor declined to comment on the reported European initiative in the Security Council, since nothing formal has been proposed. But Palmor said the idea of taking action at the United Nations only lowers the chances of renewing peace talks, and he insisted the only way to advance negotiations is "to weigh on the Palestinians and convince them to return to the negotiating table."

"Fiddling with U.N. resolutions will take us the opposite way," he added. "So it’s their choice to make, a step forward or two steps backward."

One of the European diplomats said the proposed statement of condemnation would be a "political message" distributed to all the other council members but that the Europeans are not asking the council to adopt a formal "presidential statement" or less important "press statement." Each of those would require approval by all council members.

In such cases, the United States has often stepped in on the side of Israel on the recurrent issue of settlements.

Almost exactly a year ago, the same four European nations issued a statement critical of Israeli settlements at the U.N. Security Council. They and the other 10 members pointed a finger at the United States for blocking any condemnation of Israel’s accelerated settlement construction.

The United States vetoed a U.N. resolution in February 2011 that would have condemned "illegal" Israeli settlements and urged an immediate halt to all settlement building. The 14 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly spoken out against the settlements, but her government is wary of being too tough on Israel -- whose safety she has declared to be a key German interest. Germany is considered one of Israel’s staunchest political allies in the European Union, as skepticism about Israel’s policies is growing across the 27-nation bloc.

When Netanyahu visited Berlin earlier this month, Merkel said their differing views of Israel’s settlement policies were well known, but she went to great length to stress the solid bond between the two countries which trumps those differences.

Netanyahu announced plans to build thousands of homes in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in response to the U.N. General Assembly’s decision last month to upgrade the Palestinians’ status to nonmember observer state.

Israel’s closest European allies -- Britain, Germany, Italy and France -- all abstained or voted with the Palestinians. The Assembly decision recognized a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war -- an annexation that has not been recognized internationally. Israel rejects a return to the 1967 lines and accused the Palestinians of bypassing negotiations with the U.N. bid.

Peace talks have been frozen for four years, in large part because of the settlement issue. The Palestinians refuse to negotiate while Israel expands its settlements, which are now home to more than 500,000 Israelis.

Netanyahu has rejected calls to halt settlement construction, saying that a partial freeze he imposed in 2009 and 2010 failed to restart substantive negotiations. He says talks should resume without any preconditions.

Israeli officials have brushed off the international criticism as either unfair or by portraying it as a disagreement among friends. But officials say the increasingly frosty relations with Europe are a cause for concern.