JERUSALEM — Palestinians and Israelis hardened their positions Wednesday over a contentious new settlement push around Jerusalem, with Israel going full throttle on plans to develop the area and the Palestinians trying to block it through an appeal to the U.N. Security Council.
The settlement push – Israel's retaliation for the Palestinians' success in winning U.N. recognition of a de facto state – has touched off an escalating international showdown. Palestinians claim the construction would deal a death blow to Mideast peace hopes. Even Israel's staunchest allies have been outraged by the move, feeding speculation they might squeeze Israel more than usual to back down on its construction plans.
The U.N. move came last week, with the General Assembly recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel, which rejects a return to its 1967 lines, says borders with a future Palestine should be resolved through negotiations.
Although the Israelis say construction could be years away, the settlement plans have sent a message that within these U.N.-recognized borders, Israel remains in firm control. The plans include 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and intentions to press ahead with two other projects that would drive a wedge between east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' desired capital, and its West Bank hinterland.
International condemnation was harsher than usual, with some of Israel's closest European allies, including Italy and the European Union on Wednesday, calling in Israeli ambassadors for rebukes or issuing especially stern criticism. The issue was expected to be high on Germany's agenda during a visit to Berlin by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ahead of his arrival, Israel showed no signs of bending, holding a preliminary planning meeting for a new development in a section of the West Bank outside Jerusalem. The project, known under its Israeli administrative term "E-1," is the most contentious of the new settlement projects because of its strategic location.
The Palestinians said they would leverage their newfound U.N. status to seek a Security Council resolution to halt the Jerusalem-area plans.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was determined to block the settlement building near Jerusalem with all legal and diplomatic means.
"The settlement plans that Israel announced, especially E-1, are a red line," Abbas told reporters. "This must not happen."
The Palestinian representative to the United Nations said in letters to the council, the General Assembly and the secretary-general that the intensification of the Israeli campaign is clearly part of "Israel's contemptuous response" to the assembly's overwhelming vote last week to recognize the state of Palestine.
"Israel is methodically and aggressively pushing ahead with this unlawful land grab and colonization of Palestine with the intent to alter the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian territory, especially in and around East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, in its favor in order to entrench its illegitimate control of the land and prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations," the letter said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner criticized the Palestinians for "unhelpful rhetoric" by talking about taking the Israelis to the Security Council as well as to the International Criminal Court over the settlements.
"Ultimately, both sides need to get back into direct negotiations," Toner said Wednesday. "The path to peace doesn't go through New York."
Passing a U.N. resolution will be no easy task, since the U.S., as a permanent member of the council, could veto any resolution.
Two years ago, the U.S. vetoed a similar attempt to condemn settlements, and officials in Washington said a veto would be likely this time as well unless the resolution condemned unilateral actions on both sides.
The U.S., while harshly critical of Israeli settlement construction, believes a one-sided resolution would undermine negotiations. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal resolution has not yet been proposed at the U.N.
Although the U.S. has traditionally protected Israel from U.N. criticism, American officials have condemned Israel's decision to revive E-1 and would not relish being perceived as giving it tacit backing.
But President Barack Obama could also be reluctant to be perceived as punishing Israel, which is America's closest ally in the Mideast and enjoys strong Congressional backing. Obama's Mideast policies and frosty relations with Netanyahu became an issue in his re-election campaign.
The U.S. could avoid an uncomfortable choice by pressuring Israel to back down so things don't come to a Security Council showdown, said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.
"If the U.S. can stop the Israelis without the Security Council, they should do it," he said. "They (the Americans) cannot stop us and use the veto against people trying to save the peace process."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinians should resume talks with Israel instead of turning to the U.N. "Here is where it's at, not in New York," Palmor said. "If they have something to say, let them say it to us, directly."
Israel has moved more than 500,000 Jews into settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, complicating any future partition of the land into two states. The Palestinians oppose all settlement construction, saying it prejudices the outcome of peace talks, which stalled four years ago over settlements.
The Palestinians are particularly concerned about plans to build thousands of apartments in E-1 and a separate area called Givat Hamatos, on Jerusalem's eastern and southern edges.
Critics say the settlements would cut off traditionally Arab east Jerusalem from the West Bank and destroy hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. E-1 would also drive a deep wedge between the northern and southern West Bank.
Israel had frozen plans to develop E-1 as an expansion of Maaleh Adumim, its second-largest West Bank settlement, under intense pressure from successive U.S. administrations – but not before erecting a hulking police station and carving roads and terraces into the rocky terrain just east of Jerusalem.
While goats and sheep grazed on an empty hill there, plans for building 3,000 homes in the strategic corridor were presented for the first time Wednesday to the military committee that oversees planning in the West Bank. Military spokesman Guy Inbar said the meeting was a preliminary step and that construction could be years away.
A separate committee is to meet in mid-December to discuss advanced plans to build 2,600 apartments in Givat Hamatos, another mountainous stretch of land where a few dozen Jewish and Palestinian families live in rundown trailers with only the barest of services. It would be the first new Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem since 1997, also under Netanyahu.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it 45 years ago, and claims the area as part of its capital. While the annexation is not internationally recognized, Netanyahu has said he will never agree to divide the holy city.
Skeptics have questioned whether Netanyahu actually intends to develop E-1, or is playing to hard-liners ahead of Israel's Jan. 22 election.
Attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem construction, called the Givat Hamatos project a "game-changer." Flanked by two other settlements in the southern part of east Jerusalem, it would create a string of settlements between the West Bank and Palestinian areas of east Jerusalem.
If E-1 "is a fatal heart attack" to peacemaking, then homes on Givat Hamatos would be "the silent killer, high blood pressure. They kill you just as dead," Seidemann said Wednesday.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
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China: In Favor
China's foreign minister reaffirmed support for Palestinian aspirations at the U.N. during a meeting last Friday with a Palestinian envoy. <em>Caption: Bassam al-Salhi (L), the general secretary of the Palestinian People's Party, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (R) during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry building in Beijing on November 23, 2012. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
France: In Favor
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius made the announcement before parliament. "In any case, it's only through negotiations – that we ask for without conditions and immediately between the two sides – that we will be able to reach the realization of a Palestinian state," Fabius said Tuesday. <em>Caption: French president Francois Hollande (L) welcomes Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for a meeting at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris on July 6, 2012. (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Austria: In Favor
Martin Weiss, Austria's foreign ministry spokesman, said the country decided to vote for the resolution after it became clear there would be no common EU position. <em>Caption: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) shakes hands with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on November 28, 2011 in Vienna. (DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
India: In Favor
<em>Caption: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) shakes hands with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (L) after a joint press statement in New Delhi on September 11, 2012. (RAVEENDRAN/AFP/GettyImages)</em>
Russia: Probably In Favor
Russia supported Palestinian membership in the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the country "believes that the Palestinians have the right for such a move" but it added "we hope that the Palestinian leadership has well calculated possible consequences of such action." <em>In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian Press Office (PPO) Mahmoud Abbas (R), the President of Palestinian authority and Vladimir Putin, the President of Russian Federation, speak at the Presidential Palace, on June 26, 2012 in Bethlehem, West Bank. (PPO via Getty Images)</em>
Norway: In Favor
<em>Caption: RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - JANUARY 12: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere during a meeting on January 12, 2012 in Ramallah, West Bank. (Mohamad Torokman - Pool/Getty Images)</em>
Denmark: In Favor
<em>Caption: In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian President's Office (PPO), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt on September 26, 2012 in New York City. (Thaer Ghanaim-PPO/Getty Images)</em>
Switzerland: In Favor
The Swiss government called a change in status "both constructive and pragmatic." <em>Caption: Swiss President Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf (R) speaks with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during an official visit to Switzerland on November 15, 2012 in Bern. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Spain: In Favor
<em>Caption: Madrid, SPAIN: Leader of opposition Popular Party (Partido Popular) Mariano Rajoy (R) shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas during his overnight trip to Madrid, 27 January 2007. (PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
United States: Opposed
<em>Caption: In this handout provided by U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) on November 21, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via Getty Images)</em>
Canada is a staunch ally of Israel. Rick Roth, a spokesman for Canada's foreign minister, said any two-state solution must be negotiated and mutually agreed upon by both states. Roth said any unilateral action is ultimately unhelpful. <em>Caption: In this handout photo from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper March 2, 2012 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images)</em>
Germany: Probably Opposed
It's "very certain that Germany will not vote for such a resolution," said Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert. Officials aren't saying whether that will translate into a no vote or an abstention. <em>Caption: German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of the Chancellery in Berlin April 7, 2011. (FABRIZIO BENSCH/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Netherlands: Probably Opposed
"Lasting peace in the region can only be reached if Israel and the Palestinians return to the negotiating table to reach a final agreement over a two-state solution," according to a letter the foreign minister sent to parliament this week <em>Caption: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) listens to Dutch Queen Beatrix during a meeting at Huis ten Bosch Royal Palace in The Hague, The Netherlands, on January 19, 2012. (ROBIN UTRECHT/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Britain: Possibly Abstain
The foreign secretary said Britain could support the measure only if there were a clear commitment by the Palestinians to return immediately and unconditionally to negotiations with Israel. "While there is no question of the United Kingdom voting against the resolution, in order to vote for it we would need certain assurances or amendments," said William Hague. <em>Caption: Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague arrives at a Range Rover dealership in Berlin October 23, 2012 to unveil a new Range Rover model. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her government is divided on the issue, but Gillard told Parliament "bipartisan policy across the major parties in this parliament to support Israel, to support peace in the Middle East, to support two states in the Middle East." <em>Caption: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends the naming of Queen Elizabeth Terrace at Parkes Place on November 10, 2012 in Canberra, Australia. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)</em>