US blasts ‘counterproductive’ Israeli settlements
By BRADLEY KLAPPER, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is getting little help from any quarter, let alone its ally Israel, as it pleads for a fresh start in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that could avert a veto showdown over the Palestinians’ unilateral bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations.
Already disappointed by Palestinian distaste for the new U.S.-backed proposal to resume long-stalled negotiations, the administration was taken aback anew on Tuesday when Israel announced plans to construct new Jewish housing units in east Jerusalem.
The Israeli move made a hard job even harder for the United States, which is trying to protect Israel from a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood that Israel bitterly opposes. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the housing announcement “counterproductive” to new peace talks — the only path to Palestinian statehood the U.S. and Israel say they will accept.
Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and the expansion of Israeli-built housing there is among the most explosive issues keeping the two sides from making a deal.
The Palestinians, who have been demanding a freeze in settlement activity to return to the table, said the announcement of 1,100 new Jewish housing units prove Israel isn’t interested in talks.
The Israeli announcement met with swift criticism from the U.S. and the European Union, which along with the United Nations and Russia, form the international “Quartet” of Mideast mediators. The Quartet proposed a new formula for talks last week after the Palestinians submitted their bid for recognition and U.N. membership at the U.N. Security Council.
“This morning’s announcement by the government of Israel,” Clinton said, “is counterproductive to our efforts to resume negotiations between the parties. We have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including and perhaps most particularly in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side.”
Expressing some frustration, Clinton told reporters at the State Department that “we have been here before, over many years.”
She was referring to similar Israeli announcements that have goaded the Americans and further hardened the Palestinian position. But she added that the difficulties in making progress on a two-state agreement “only reinforces (that) our focus must remain working to convince the parties to return to direct negotiations.”
The White House added that it was “deeply disappointed” by the Israeli announcement, which came less than a week after the Quartet proposal for renewed talks with firm deadlines for progress.
“Each side in the dispute between the Palestinians and Israelis should take steps that bring them closer to direct negotiations to resolve the issues that stand in the way of Palestinian statehood and a secure Jewish state of Israel,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One. “When either side takes unilateral action that makes it harder to achieve that, we make our views known.”
Israel’s Interior Ministry said the homes would be built in Gilo, a sprawling Jewish enclave in southeast Jerusalem, and construction could begin in two months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out any new freeze in settlement construction, a key Palestinian demand, raising tensions and further challenging the U.S. and its Quartet partners.
The Quartet had hoped that new talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state would persuade the Palestinians to put their separate bid for U.N. recognition on hold. The proposal envisions the Israelis and Palestinians agreeing on an agenda and parameters for peace talks within a month and producing comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months. The Quartet said it then expected the parties to “have made substantial progress” within six months. The goal would be to have a peace deal no later than the end of 2012.
By endorsing the Quartet proposal, the Obama administration may have managed to buy a little time, but it may also have maneuvered itself into a corner. Committing to those detailed deadlines raises potentially unrealistic hopes for success and locks the administration into a process that will play out as President Barack Obama fights for re-election next year.
But even worse would be rejection of the proposal by the Israelis and Palestinians, which is what appears to be happening.
For the U.S. the Quartet statement was a small victory after weeks of disappointment and days of intense negotiations that failed to stop Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas from formally seeking statehood recognition for Palestine.
The U.N. route to statehood is vehemently opposed by Israel, which wants a say in how and where the future state is created. The United States, as Israel’s strongest ally and chief defender at the U.N., has acted as bulwark. That put the Obama administration at odds with the Abbas government it supports and on the wrong side of public opinion among Arab and Muslim publics Obama has courted.
The Quartet statement took note of Abbas’ submission to the U.N. Security Council but did not mention it further. The U.S. has vowed to veto the move in the Security Council, which is expected to take up the matter again on Wednesday.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
U.S., EU condemn Israeli plan to expand settlement
By Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Reuters
JERUSALEM | Israel approved on Tuesday the construction of 1,100 settlement homes on annexed land in the West Bank, complicating global efforts to renew peace talks and defuse a crisis over a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations.
The plan was met with a chorus of Western criticism. Britain and the European Union called on Israel to reverse the decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said new settlement building would be “counter-productive” to the efforts to revive peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied at the U.N. on Friday for full Palestinian membership, a move opposed by Israel and the United States, which urged him to resume negotiations.
Abbas has made a cessation of Israeli settlement building a condition for returning to talks which collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month partial moratorium on construction.
The so-called Quartet of international mediators — the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N. — has called for talks to begin within a month and urged both sides not to take unilateral actions that could block peacemaking.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the new housing units Israel wants to build represented “1,100 ‘noes’ to the Quartet statement” urging a resumption of negotiations.
“Israel is challenging the will of the international community with the continued settlement policy,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, an Abbas spokesman, said.
The new homes are to be built in Gilo, an urban settlement that Israel erected on land it captured in the West Bank in a 1967 war and annexed unilaterally as part of its declared capital, Jerusalem.
Palestinians want to create a state in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and say settlements could deny them a viable country. Israel cites historical and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls Judea and Samaria.
Some 500,000 settlers live in the territory home to 2.5 million Palestinians.
Israel’s Interior Ministry said a district planning committee approved the Gilo project and public objections to the proposal could be lodged within a 60-day review period, after which construction could begin.
Despite the new crisis over settlements, Netanyahu held consultations on Tuesday with a forum of senior cabinet ministers about Quartet efforts to try and renew peace talks in the coming weeks, an Israeli political source said.
Palestinian leaders were expected to debate the Quartet’s plan on Wednesday.
In New York on Monday, a divided U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors for its first discussion of last week’s Palestinian application for full U.N. membership as a state.
The move seems certain to fail due to Israeli and U.S. opposition, despite substantial support by other governments.
Abu Rdainah said it was up to the Security Council to put a stop to Israel’s settlement policy “which is destroying the two-state solution and putting more obstacles in front of any effort to bring about a resumption of negotiations.”
In London, Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague said settlement expansion was illegal and “corrodes trust and undermines the basic principle of land for peace. We call on the Government of Israel to revoke this decision.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she deplored the decision, adding: “I call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this plan.”
Richard Miron, spokesman for U.N. Middle East envoy Robert Serry, called Israel’s decision “very concerning.”
Clinton said the Israeli decision was “counter-productive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.
“As you know, we have long urged both sides to avoid any kind of action which could undermine trust, including, and perhaps most particularly, in Jerusalem, any action that could be viewed as provocative by either side,” she told reporters at a news conference.
Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Ramallah and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Rosalind Russell