U.S., Europe Censure Israel for Plan to Ramp Up Construction

France: We don't want to shift into sanctions mode.

The United States and several European countries are pressuring Israel to reverse its decision to build a new neighborhood near Jerusalem and put up 3,000 new housing units in the West Bank settlement blocs and East Jerusalem.

The neighborhood would go up in the E-1 corridor linking Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim to the east; the plan was announced shortly after the Palestinians won their UN bid to be recognized as a nonmember state.

The White House called on Israel yesterday to reconsider its decision, and France issued a veiled threat, saying it hoped to convince Israel to backtrack before imposing sanctions.

"We don't want to shift into sanctions mode," said French President Francois Hollande, speaking at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. "We are more focused on persuading."

The Obama administration also harshly criticized Israel over the planned construction.

"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."

At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said the E-1 area "is particularly sensitive, and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution."

In Israel, the Prime Minister's Office waited several hours before addressing the wave of international condemnation. A senior Netanyahu aide eventually said Israel would not retract its decision to step up its plans for settlement construction.

"We will continue to stand up for our vital interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision that was made," said the senior aide. "If the Palestinians continue with the unilateral steps, Israel will act accordingly."

Israel has also revoked the VIP passes of Fatah leaders Jibril Rajoub and Nabil Sha'ath.

Meanwhile, in a coordinated move, Israeli ambassadors in Britain, France, Sweden, Denmark and Spain were summoned for talks with government officials in their host countries yesterday, with the goal of urging Israel to change its mind on the E-1 corridor and settlement construction.

Russia and Germany also called on Israel to drop the plan to build the new neighborhood, known as Mevasseret Adumim, whose construction would further divide the West Bank.

"Israel is undermining faith in its willingness to negotiate, and the geographic space for a future Palestinian state, which must be the basis for a two-state solution, is disappearing," said German government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Russia said the move would have "a most adverse impact" on peace.

A senior European diplomat and a veteran Israeli government official both said summoning Israeli ambassadors and issuing condemnatory statements are only the first step in efforts to win a pledge from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to begin construction in the E-1 area. As Hollande indicated, sanctions might be imposed down the line.

As senior European diplomats have told Haaretz, Britain and France might take the unprecedented step of recalling their ambassadors.

In an interview with Sky News, a British government official confirmed that Britain had considered recalling its ambassador, saying all the options were on the table regarding steps against Israel.

A few hours later, the spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron told the BBC that at this stage Britain does not plan to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv. But he did not rule out the possibility in the future.

The spokesman for the French foreign ministry also said that at this point the country is not planning to recall its ambassador.