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Rift widens between Israel and European allies

JERUSALEM — Britain, France, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark summoned the Israeli ambassadors to their countries Monday to protest Israel's plans for increased settlement construction, an unusually sharp diplomatic step that reflected the growing frustration abroad with Israel's policies on the Palestinian issue.

After the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly last week to upgrade the status of the Palestinians at the United Nations, Israel announced plans for 3,000 more housing units in contested areas east of Jerusalem and around the West Bank.

Israel raised particular alarms with its decision to continue planning and zoning work for the development of a contentious area known as E1, a project vehemently opposed internationally because it would partly separate the northern and southern West Bank, harming the prospects of a contiguous Palestinian state in that territory.


The Obama administration also harshly criticized Israel, its most important Mideast ally, over the planned construction.

''We reiterate our longstanding opposition to Israeli settlement activity and East Jerusalem construction,'' White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "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.''

At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said the E1 plans are ''especially damaging'' to efforts to restart peace talks and reach a two-state solution.

Yet, Israel remained resolute. Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu's office issued a statement Monday, saying, ''Israel will continue to stand for its essential interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision it has taken.''

The settlement decision raised questions in Israel about whether the country's leaders were putting domestic political interests ahead of its foreign relations, with Israeli elections scheduled for late January.

''Bibi had to do something'' in response to the UN vote, said professor Shmuel Sandler of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname, ''first because he is Bibi and second because of the elections.''


Sandler said that Netanyahu, a conservative, was making the mistake of competing against those further to his right, adding, ''But I don't think he expected such a reaction'' internationally.

A press officer for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Sunday that construction in E1 ''would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution.''

European countries long opposed to Israeli settlement construction went beyond their usual statements of condemnation.

The countries that called in the Israeli ambassadors ''expressed their strong protests about the announced settlement plans,'' said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Palmor said that the Israeli ambassadors told their hosts that Israel has been warning for months that the Palestinian bid at the United Nations would not go unanswered and would have implications.

Israel has described the bid as a unilateral Palestinian step that violates previous signed agreements. The Palestinians have long refused to negotiate with Israel without a halt in settlement construction.

France, Spain, Sweden, and Denmark voted for the Palestinian upgrade, while Britain abstained. Although Israel had expected the resolution to pass, officials here expressed disappointment over the lack of support from several friendly European nations. Israel was particularly surprised by Germany's decision to abstain in the vote, having expected Germany to go with Israel.


Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Germany this week. Despite the so-called special relationship between Israel and Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has not minced words about her opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the past.

Philippe Lalliot, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, said in a statement Monday that ''Settlement activity is illegal under international law, hurts the confidence necessary for a return to dialogue and constitutes an obstacle to a just peace founded on the two-state solution.''

The British Foreign Office said it deplored the Israeli settlement plans and that it had called on the Israeli government to reverse the decision.

But Israeli officials denied that the government's policies were isolating Israel.

''It is well known that Europe and Israel have a different approach on settlements,'' said one Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''There is nothing new here. If European countries would have behaved differently in their vote at the United Nations last week,'' he continued, ''we may have reacted differently.''