December 3, 2012 11:45 am

Five EU states summon Israeli envoys

Five EU governments summoned Israel’s respective ambassadors on Monday to express their strong concern at its decision to approve the building of 3,000 housing units in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, while the Obama administration also issued a strongly worded statement.

In a co-ordinated move, the five states – Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark and Spain – delivered a formal protest at the decision to expand housing settlements.

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Mark Toner, a state department spokesman, said that the US “opposes all unilateral actions, including West Bank settlement activity and housing construction in East Jerusalem, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations”.

The E1 area, which was included in the plans, was “particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution”, he said. “We have made clear to the Israeli government that such action is contrary to US policy.”

The UK summoned ambassador Daniel Taub in a move that follows Britain’s strong criticism of the expansion of housing settlements in an area that would be illegal under international law.

Following the meeting with Mr Taub in London, Alistair Burt, a British Foreign Office minister, said: “I set out the depth of the UK’s concern about these decisions and I called on the Israeli government to reverse them. 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 French foreign ministry dismissed reports that Paris might recall its ambassador to Israel in response to the decision.

The Israeli government confirmed the meetings but declined official comment.

The Palestinians and most western governments regard the E1 piece of land as the most contentious in the West Bank. Should Israel press ahead with plans to build a settlement there, it would make the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital almost impossible.

Critics point out that developing E1 would not only complete the encirclement of occupied East Jerusalem with Jewish settlements, but would also effectively cut the West Bank into northern and southern halves.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has brushed off world condemnation of his latest settlement plans, which were announced on Friday hours after the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the Palestinians’ diplomatic status.

“We will carry on building in Jerusalem and in all the places that are on the map of Israel’s strategic interests,” Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday at a weekly cabinet meeting.

In addition to authorising the settlements, the Israeli government also agreed to expedite planning work for thousands more homes on barren land near Jerusalem. Critics say this would kill off Palestinian hopes of creating a viable state.

Among Israeli and western officials, there was heightened speculation over what other steps London, Paris and other capitals could take to show their displeasure with Israel.

According to one European diplomat, foreign ministries were considering “the full range of options” – a statement that left open the possibility of recalling European ambassadors from Tel Aviv, where most foreign representations to Israel have their seat.

But Israeli officials played down the prospect of such a dramatic step. “We are talking about a very strong protest. But at no point did anyone hint [at] recalling their ambassadors,” an Israeli official said.

In another blow to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Israel announced on Sunday it was withholding Palestinian tax revenues this month worth about $100m.

Israel said it was retaining the money to help cover a Palestinian debt of $200m with the Israeli Electric Corporation.

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