The forum of top eight ministers on Tuesday concluded its meeting on Israel's response to the accession of the Palestinian Authority into UNESCO.
Following the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the government to expedite the construction of some 2,000 housing units in Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumim – all areas that he said would remain within Israel's territory as part of any future arrangement with the Palestinians.
- UNESCO grants Palestinians full membership
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Israel mulling response to PA's UNESCO gambit
In addition, it was decided to delay the transfer of Palestinian funds to the PA. Jerusalem is also considering revoking the VIP cards of several Palestinian officials and might consider steps against UNESCO's operations in Israel. The forum members are expected to meet again soon to discuss further steps.
A senior government official told Ynet on Monday that "Israel might respond to the Palestinians' unilateral move with specific steps, which may not seem problematic to Israel, but might prompt international objections."
The source hinted that Israel is also considering the possibility of green-lighting construction in areas that the international community considers part of the Palestinians' territory.
However, some members of the eight-minister forum believe that withholding funds from the PA will eventually hurt Israel.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is opposed to the move fearing it will hurt the PA's ability to pay its security forces who are working alongside Israel to prevent terrorist activity in the West Bank.
"If Israel decides to withhold funds it can backfire on us," a state official told Ynet. "These funds do not belong to Israel and they serve the PA in paying salaries and funding routine activities."
State officials were skeptic as far as the implementation of the decision. "There is talk now, because their unilateral steps warrant a response, but it will eventually amount to nothing. It would be unwise on Israel's part to hurt the PA's financial abilities."
UNESCO's decision to grant the Palestinian Authority full membership on Monday stirred a storm in Washington. The US State Department announced shortly after the vote that it is suspending some $60 million in funds, which were to be transferred to the UN organization in November.
"What happened in UNESCO is not a simple matter, and must be taken seriously," a Jerusalem official told Ynet. "Israel might respond with its own unilateral steps, and must examine the ramifications of the Palestinian accession."
Kadima party members slammed the government's move, saying that "Instead of convincing the world that Israel is right – Netanyahu is providing the Palestinians with more tools for its struggle against Israel.
Palestinian officials in Ramallah fumed over the announcement. "This is an outrageous step by a government who once again slaps the face of the international community," a Palestinian state official said. "We expect the Quartet and the entire international community to harshly condemn the Israeli step which solidifies the occupation."
Responding to claims that construction will only be held in areas which will remain under Israeli sovereignty in future peace deals, the official said: "This exposes Israel's real intention of forcing a solution instead of pushing for negotiations. It shows we do not have a peace partner in Israel."
'Israel needs to accept reality' (Photo: EPA)
The Palestinian official added that the PA will maintain its non-violent campaign to achieve independence. "Today more than 75% of the world's population have recognized the Palestinian state and this figure continues to grow," he said.
"Palestine is a reality and instead of ignoring it by illegal construction on our land – Israel needs to accept the reality of two democratic states. Sadly, this clearly is not Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's strategy."
He noted that "Israel makes it hard for even its closest allies to defend it."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina said that "accelerating the construction in the settlements will accelerate the destruction of the peace process, and freezing the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority is like stealing the money of the Palestinian people."
Abu Rudeina noted that settlement construction is ongoing and that the PA's admittance to UNESCO is only an excuse for Israel to carry on with this policy.
He addressed the possibility that Jerusalem will prevent UNESCO envoys from entering Israel and the PA and said it could constitute violation of international law. "We ask the Quartet and the US administration to put an end to these actions which have negative consequences for the region."
Elior Levy contributed to this report
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