WASHINGTON – The White House on Friday expressed "regret" regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to approve construction plans in the West Bank, just ahead of a planned signing of a deal with the US that would freeze settlement activity.
EU foreign ministers joined the US in expressing this sentiment, with Britain, Italy, and France all stating they believed the construction would impede peace talks.
"The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop," said a statement by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
The statement was released just a few hours after an aide to Netanyahu announced that "the prime minister plans to approve the construction of hundreds of news housing units in Judea and Samaria, before the freeze."
Top Jerusalem sources also stressed that Israel would continue the construction of some 2,500 housing units in the West Bank that is already underway.
But the White House statement said that "continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the Roadmap".
"We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate," Gibbs stated. "We do appreciate Israel's stated intent to place limits on settlement activity and will continue to discuss this with the Israelis as these limitations are defined."
Construction near Jerusalem (Photo: AFP)
The statement added, "The US commitment to Israel’s security is and will remain unshakeable. We believe it can best be achieved through comprehensive peace in the region, including a two-state solution with a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel."
It said President Barack Obama was "deeply and personally committed" to this, and that his objective was to resume negotiations as soon as possible.
"We are working with all parties – Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab states – on the steps they must take to achieve that objective," the statement concluded.
EU:Settlements illegal, impede peace
EU foreign ministers also condemned Netanyahu's decision. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters the EU's 27 foreign ministers were all against the move.
"The announcement made to build new buildings and new settlements exactly at the moment when all the international community is asking Israel for a freeze has been criticized by the ministers of foreign affairs," Frattini said after the ministers completed the first day of a two-day meeting in Stockholm.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated EU calls for a complete settlement freeze to spur the restart of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Our position is absolutely clear and that settlements are illegal and an impediment to peace and that obviously anything in East Jerusalem is particularly difficult," Miliband said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he was hopeful peace talks could be relaunched on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York later this month.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the EU was also putting pressure on Arab countries to rebuild ties with Israel. He suggested Arab countries could open trade offices in Israel and open up aviation routes
'Freeze must include Jerusalem'
The Arab League chief also denounced Netanyahu's decision and said any Israeli offer for a settlement freeze that doesn't include east Jerusalem is unacceptable and "will suspend the peace process."
Amr Moussa spoke Friday at a conference on Italy's Lake Como. Moussa said a freeze of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians hope to make their capital, is a precondition for any meaningful talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
President Shimon Peres also spoke at the conference, and said Israel had decided to adopt the two-state solution as a method for achieving peace.
He added that the prime minister was committed to the peace process and is "willing to go a long hard way to actualize it".
Turning to Moussa he said, "Let's stop telling each other: You're wrong and I'm right. This is a time for leaders to work together to resolve differences, to agree to compromises and to move forward."
AP and Roni Sofer contributed to this report