— JERUSALEM (AP) — Five European nations summoned Israeli ambassadors on Monday to denounce Israel's latest settlement construction push, deepening the rift between the Jewish state and European allies over the Palestinians' successful U.N. statehood bid.
Although Europe considers all Israeli settlement construction illegal, the summoning of ambassadors in France, Britain, Sweden, Spain and Denmark to accuse Israel of undermining already troubled peace efforts was an unusually strong expression of displeasure. It came at a time when Israel was already smarting over Europe's failure to back the Jewish state in its campaign against the statehood move.
The settlement issue is at the heart of the four-year freeze in Israel-Palestinian peace talks. Palestinians demand a halt in construction before talks resume, while Israel insists on negotiations with no preconditions.
The Europeans were furious over Israel's announcement Friday that it would move ahead on plans to build 3,000 settler homes to punish the Palestinians for winning U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine in territories Israel captured in 1967.
Israel also said it would begin planning work on an especially sensitive piece of land outside Jerusalem that it has refrained from developing because of U.S. pressure. A meeting with developers and other interested parties was to take place Wednesday, though officials have stressed that it could be years before actual construction begins.
In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office insisted Israel would press ahead with its latest settlement construction plans, despite the strong European pressure.
"Israel will continue to stand up for its essential interests even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision taken," the statement read. "The Palestinians' unilateral step at the U.N. is a blatant and fundamental violation of the agreements vouched on by the international community. It should come as no surprise that Israel did not sit idly by following the Palestinians' unilateral steps."
After a flurry of angry phone calls from European capitals to Israel over the weekend, France called in the Israeli envoy to Paris late Monday morning.
France, the first major European country to announce support for the Palestinian statehood effort, also sent a letter to the Israeli government, calling the settlement decision "a considerable obstacle to the two-state solution."
Britain, which abstained in the U.N. vote, urged Israel to reverse the decision, summoning the Israeli envoy to the Foreign Office. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told parliament that "together with other EU countries we will discuss other potential steps," but he would not elaborate.
British officials said London was looking to Washington to take the lead, and that British diplomats were meeting with American counterparts on Monday.
None of the four European governments openly threatened concrete measures to punish Israel.
"Our ambassadors were called in, and the countries protested about the announcement about the intention to do further construction in settlements," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met Monday with the consul general of France in the West Bank and asked France to press Israel to halt settlement activity, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.
Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath praised the Europeans for taking action.
"We've been expecting this kind of behavior for a long time," Shaath said. "For this to come from France and England is very beneficial to us. We highly appreciate it and we are hoping the U.S. will follow their lead."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that the settlement activities "set back the cause of a negotiated peace," but nothing harsher has emerged from Washington, the only world power to side with the Israelis against the Palestinians' statehood measure.
Germany, which abstained in the U.N. vote, expressed concern Monday over the Israeli move but wouldn't say whether it had taken any direct measures in response. Netanyahu is due in Berlin on Wednesday for a previously scheduled meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Steffen Seibert, Merkel's spokesman, said Germany took a "very negative view" of the settlement announcement, which he said undermined peace efforts.
The Palestinians view continued settlement expansion as a show of bad faith and refuse to return to talks unless construction is frozen. Netanyahu notes a 10-month settlement slowdown in 2010 failed to jump-start negotiations, and rejects calls for a new construction freeze.
The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to recognize a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel still occupies those first two territories and restricts access to Gaza, though it withdrew all settlers and soldiers in 2005.
Netanyahu rejects a return to Israel's 1967 lines. His government campaigned against the U.N. measure, saying only direct negotiations could produce a Palestinian state.
Israel retaliated by announcing the next day that it would start drawing up plans to build 3,000 settlement homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. More explosively, from the Palestinian point of view, it said it would begin planning work for a chunk of land east of Jerusalem known as E1.
Building there would sever the link between the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim for a future capital. It would also cut off the northern part of the West Bank from its southern flank.
On Wednesday, Israel's planning and construction committee for the area is scheduled to hold a first-ever meeting to discuss developing the E1 area, a defense official said.
The session, described by the official as a "very, very preliminary" step, would be open to Jewish politicians in the West Bank and developers, as well as Palestinians with any claims to parts of the land. This would be the first step in a planning process that could take months, if not years, before ground is actually broken.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the project with reporters.
Actual settlement construction remains far from certain and may have been announced by Netanyahu just to appeal to hawkish voters ahead of Israel's Jan. 22 election.