Israeli Ambassador: Palestinian Concerns Over West Bank Settlement are Baseless

E1 development plans are in response to U.N. vote, Oren says.

The E1 project area, background, seen from the Israeli West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, near East Jerusalem, Dec. 11, 2012.
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Israel is well within its rights to create a new settlement, and concerns that it could bisect a Palestinian state are completely groundless, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. said Tuesday.

The projected E1 settlement seeks to connect Jerusalem with the Ma'ale Adumim settlement to the east via "a strip of highway, less than 2 miles long that goes through a barren desert," Ambassador Michael Oren told reporters at a lunch meeting in Washington.

Palestinians and their allies argue the settlement would drive a wedge between the north and south flanks of the West Bank and separate it from East Jerusalem — which Palestine hopes to make its capital.

"All of that is just simply a canard," Oren says. "It does not cut off, it does not bisect a future Palestinian state. Far from it."

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The ambassador also offered alternatives for bypassing the settlement.

"The strip of land can either be overpassed by a bridge, by a cloverleaf, or by a very short tunnel," he says.

"It has been the intent of every Israeli government, going back to Yitzhak Rabin in the 1970s, to build along E1 in order to ensure the contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma'ale Adumim, so it was not cut off and could not be cut off," he adds.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to move forward with the settlement, which will hold thousands of homes, was in response to Palestinian petitions in the U.N. for its newly granted non-member observer "state" status, Oren says, as well as the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas.

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Netanyahu was under pressure from the Israeli electorate to respond to Palestinians, Oren says, adding a majority of Israelis opposed the late November ceasefire with Hamas.

"If the Palestinians were taking unilateral actions in the U.N…. we had to send a message that we also could take unilateral actions," the ambassador says. "[Netanyahu] wanted to send a calibrated message that we could also take unilateral measures, but we would take them in areas that would, in any case, be a part of the state of Israel."

The prime minister also announced the plans preliminarily, allowing Palestinians "several years" to participate in the negotiation process.

"But it sent a message," Oren says.

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When asked about the E1 settlement last Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, "we want to see both sides step back from unilateral action so that we can pause, look at the road ahead, where we need to be, and move towards peace away from unconstructive actions."

A reporter had asked Toner about Palestinian claims that the U.S. would block the Israelis from building E1 in exchange for their omitting from membership to U.N. agencies, such as the International Criminal Court. He declined to comment further.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com.