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Israel hits back at EU over settlement protest

Jan. 17, 2014 2:16 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 18, 2014 10:13 P.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel called in European ambassadors in a tit-for-tat move Friday after four EU states lodged formal protests against the right-wing government's drive to expand illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the European Union of a "hypocritical" attitude toward the Middle East process, saying it should be more concerned by Palestinian militancy than Israeli housing construction.

The new spat with Europe follows a furious public row with key ally the United States after Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon launched a bitter personal tirade against Secretary of State John Kerry for his "obsession" with brokering a framework peace deal with the Palestinians by April.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in an illegal settlement, ordered the ambassadors of Britain, France, Italy and Spain be called in to "stress to them that their perpetual one-sided stance against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians is unacceptable and creates the impression they are only seeking ways to blame Israel," his spokesman said.

"Beyond being biased, unbalanced and ignoring the reality on the ground, the positions held by these states significantly harm the possibility of reaching some sort of agreement between the sides," a statement said.

Lieberman's spokesman said the envoys were being summoned for Friday.

Another Israeli official told AFP that calling in ambassadors for the same day was a rare move indicative of the degree of offense caused.

Last Friday, Israel announced plans for some 1,800 homes in the West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem, just days after the latest peace mission by Kerry, his 10th visit to the region in less than a year.

Israeli ambassadors in London, Rome and Paris were called in over the plans on Thursday, with the ambassador in Madrid summoned for Friday.

Netanyahu hit out at the move by the four governments.

"The EU calls our ambassadors in because of the construction of a few houses? When did the EU call in the Palestinian ambassadors about incitement that calls for Israel's destruction?" Netanyahu asked foreign correspondents at a Thursday reception.

Netanyahu said this "imbalance ... pushes peace further away," and insisted Israel's settlement expansion plans should not be seen as counter-productive to the efforts under way since last July to reach a deal with the Palestinians.

"We are keeping in line exactly with the understandings we undertook at the beginning of the talks," he said at the reception. "It was also equally clear that Israel undertook no restraints on construction."

Israel's European spat comes hot on the heels of a furious row with its US ally over Yaalon's tirade against Kerry, which the White House described as "inappropriate" and "offensive".

Yaalon later apologized but the spat underlined the estrangement between the longtime allies which has already seen angry public rows over Iran policy and Israel's defiant drive to expand its settlements even while peace talks with the Palestinians are under way.

Kerry has focused his latest efforts specifically on security, with his team proposing a detailed plan for arrangements on the border between Jordan and a future Palestinian state.

On Thursday, Netanyahu met King Abdullah II in Amman for talks on the peace process and future security arrangements.

"Any peace agreement in the region has to assure that the border between Israel and Jordan... is always a tranquil and safe border," Netanyahu said of the Jordan Valley.

"That is an interest for us, I think for the Palestinians as well and certainly for Jordan."

Israel demands a long-term troop presence in the Jordan Valley, which forms a third of the occupied West Bank. Palestinians will not countenance any open-ended deployment and have called instead for an international force.

All Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are considered illegal under international law and are considered one of the major obstacles in reaching a final status agreement.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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