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Israel stands firm, won't reverse building plans

Israeli ambassadors across Europe reprimanded for decision to expand construction beyond the Green Line • Israeli official: The Europeans understand that Israel had no other option • Abbas aide: "Israel is pushing and forcing us to go to the ICC."
Shlomo Cesana, Yoni Hirsch, Eli Leon, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff

The Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim. Foreign governments claim Israeli construction in E1 is a severe detriment to the two-state solution.

Officials in Jerusalem are not overwrought by the diplomatic attack from Europe over Israel's decision to authorize the construction of 3,000 additional housing units in Judea and Samaria.

After Israeli ambassadors were reprimanded in London and Paris, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the objections from Europe would not stop the construction plans, and that those who had voiced their opposition should have considered the ramifications before allowing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to embarrass Israel at the United Nations.

Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser on Tuesday said Israel's settlement expansion announcement came in response to the Palestinians' attempt to gain statehood at the U.N. in a unilateral way.

"The Israeli government needs to make it clear that unilateral steps by the Palestinians are not the way things are going to get solved,” Hauser said.

“We're trying every way possible to get the Palestinians back to the table. The Palestinians think that they can get achievements by unilateral action, and we are showing them that they cannot. If anyone thinks that because of pressure Israel won't build in Gilo and Ramat Shlomo then he doesn’t understand the map of Israeli interests.

"There is consensus in the Israeli public and politics that there are areas that we have to keep normal life going. We are not talking about a little stone in the desert. We are talking about Jerusalem. We have to see the whole picture: It is unacceptable that the Palestinians play alone on the chessboard. We will act according to the behavior of the Palestinians. If they persist with unilateral moves we will react."

Also Tuesday, Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, played down the international response, saying Israel isn't happy about it but that "it's not the end of the world."

A senior Abbas aide, Nabil Shaath, said late Monday that "by continuing these war crimes of settlement activities on our lands and stealing our money, Israel is pushing and forcing us to go to the ICC."

Shaath' comments marked the most pronounced Palestinian threat yet of turning to the ICC, though officials suggested privately that appealing to the international court is a step of last resort.

Last week, Abbas said that he's not going to turn to the ICC "unless we were attacked" and that he informed many countries, including the United States, of this position.

Meanwhile, a senior Israeli official told Israel Radio on Tuesday that the Europeans understood that Israel had no other option than to respond as it did. According to the official, the argument is over the degree of severity of Israel's response, not about the response itself. The official emphasized that if Israel had refrained from responding to Abbas' U.N. initiative, the damage to Israel would have been greater.

Other Israeli diplomats, meanwhile, told Israel Radio that by dispatching threatening messages through the Israeli media over the past 24 hours, European leaders had tried testing Netanyahu's political strength. According to the Israeli officials, the European leaders had hoped that Netanyahu would abort the decision to build in E1, an area of land between Jerusalem and the city of Maaleh Adumim, beyond the Green Line, which was why the prime minister had decided to harden his stance.

For Israeli representatives in Europe, however, Monday was an unpleasant day. In a coordinated European response, the British, French, Danish, Spanish and Swedish Foreign Ministries summoned their respective Israeli ambassadors to protest the government's decision to expand construction beyond the Green Line. The British Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that "Britain's deep concern" had been expressed to the Israeli ambassador.

The U.S., too, joined the chorus of criticism on Monday.

"We reiterate our long-standing opposition to Israeli settlement activity and East Jerusalem construction," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. "We oppose all unilateral actions, including settlement activity and housing construction, as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations, and this including building in the so called E1 area.

"We urge Israeli leaders 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."

At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said the E1 plans were "especially damaging" to prospects for a resumption in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The E1 area "is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution," Toner said in a statement.

On Tuesday, Brazil and Australia also summoned their respective Israeli ambassadors to protest the government's decision.

"Australia has long opposed all settlement activity," Foreign Minister Bob Carr said in a statement after Israeli Ambassador Yuval Rotem's meeting with senior Australian officials. "Such activity threatens the viability of a two-state solution, without which there will never be security in Israel."

Carr said Israel's actions had complicated the chances of fresh negotiations between the two sides. "I am extremely disappointed with these reported Israeli decisions," he said.

Diplomatic protocol in such cases states merely that the host country is expressing its discontent to the summoned ambassador.

According to a statement issued by the French Foreign Ministry, the Israeli ambassador was again informed that France condemned the Israeli settlement enterprise in all its forms: "The settlements are illegal in the eyes of international law, are a detriment to the trust required to renew dialogue, and are an obstacle to peace and justice based on a two-state solution. Construction in the E1 area will be severely detrimental to the two-state solution by isolating Jerusalem — which is to become the capital for both states — from the West Bank and threaten the territorial continuity of the future Palestinian state. We call on both sides of the peace process to refrain from any measure that could hinder the timely renewal of unconditioned negotiations, which we wish for with all our hearts."

The British satellite news agency Sky News reported on Monday that Britain was considering imposing sanctions against Israel if it went through with the expansion plan, including recalling British Ambassador to Israel Mathew Gould, at least for a short while, and submitting a request to the EU to consider postponing commercial agreements with Israel, which provide Israel access to European markets.

In France, as in Britain, officials distanced themselves from a report by the Israeli daily Haaretz, according to which they had considered recalling their ambassadors for consultation. The French Foreign Ministry said, "We have other means at our disposal to express our objections."

Israeli officials said that reports pertaining to the suspension of commercial ties with EU countries were also false, and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor said commerce was proceeding as usual.

Meanwhile, the next political storm over Israeli construction could be brewing. After a two-and-a-half-year freeze, the government directed the Regional Committee for Planning and Construction to meet on Dec. 17 to advance plans to build 1,600 housing units in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in northern Jerusalem, which is also beyond the Green Line. The committee will also discuss further construction in the capital's Givat Hamatos neighborhood.

The plan to build in Ramat Shlomo was first revealed in March 2010 during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The initiative, and the timing of its publication, angered the U.S. administration, which forced Israel to shelve the plan.

Amid the diplomatic pressure from abroad, politicians in Israel ratcheted up rhetoric against their detractors from home. Environment Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) blasted the opposition parties, saying, "If you were a responsible opposition, you would be backing the government. You are first and foremost responsible for this landslide."

Opposition Leader MK Shaul Mofaz said: "We can't continue pretending there is a solution other than two states. Israel has lost the moral majority, which had always been on our side."

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