US calls Israel settlement announcement ‘counterproductive’

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In a move the United States called “counterproductive,” Israel on Friday announced that it will build 3,000 new settler homes, including in a sensitive zone of East Jerusalem. The Israeli announcement came a day after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to upgrade Palestine’s status in the world body, against the wishes of the United States and Jerusalem.

The United States and Europe have long opposed Israeli construction in the sensitive E1 zone connecting Jerusalem and the Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adunim, north of the capital.

“We reiterate our longstanding opposition to settlements and East Jerusalem construction and announcements,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel by email Friday.

“We believe these actions are counterproductive and make it harder [to] resume direct negotiations or achieve of a two state solution,” Vietor continued. “Direct negotiations remain our goal and we encourage all parties to take steps to make that easier to achieve.”

“If the announcement is real and not simply a PR move for internal politics reasons, it should spur the Administration into action, as the United States has been adamant for many years, including in the Bush Administration, that Israel not build in E-1,” former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told the Back Channel Friday.

Several Israeli observers saw the announcement as an attempt by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “save face” with voters after the humiliation of the UN vote Thursday, and ahead of Israeli elections in January. In the days ahead of the vote, Israel had played down its importance, after previously warning of a harsh response if the Palestinians carried through with their UN plans.

“They threatened [the] collapse of [the] Oslo agreements, and serious acts that will destroy [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas,” Amir Radberg, who formerly worked at the Israeli embassy, told the Back Channel. “But [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton was here and begged him not to destroy PA. So this is the only thing he can do to show some action.”

“Revenge time,” Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote on Twitter. Since the Obama administration didn’t manage to persuade Europe to oppose the Palestinian UN measure, Benn explained the logic, Netanyahu is announcing settlement building in “E1, the most controversial settlement project.” But he added, Netanyahu may not actually do any building in the E1 zone for now, just prepare the approvals.

Netanyahu also announced Friday that he would travel to Germany, to express unhappiness with Germany’s decision to abstain on the UN vote, rather than vote against it.

The only country in Europe that voted against the Palestinian UN measure was the Czech Republic.

In the final vote tally, 138 nations voted in favor of upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN to that of a non-member observer state, a status shared with the Vatican; 41 nations abstained, including the UK, Germany, and Australia; while only 9 nations voted against the measure. They were the United States, Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.

(Map posted by Israeli settlements expert Daniel Seidemann.)