By JOSEF FEDERMAN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel rejected a wave of American and European condemnations Monday over plans to build thousands of new homes in West Bank settlements, vowing to press forward with the construction in the face of widespread international opposition.
The announcement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office was likely to deepen a rift that has emerged between Israel and some of its closest allies following the U.N.'s recognition of a Palestinian state last week. The U.N. decision appears to be fueling a tougher international line against Israeli settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Israeli ambassadors were summoned for consultations in five European capitals, and European officials warned of other potential measures against Israel. In Washington, the U.S. said the Israeli actions were "especially damaging" to peace prospects.
Italian Premier Mario Monti and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement saying they were "deeply worried" by Israel's settlement plans. The two men, meeting in Lyon, France, called the Israeli decisions "serious and illegal" and a "serious obstacle" to Mideast peace.
Netanyahu, however, showed no signs of bending. His office said Israel would continue to stand up for its interests "even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision taken."
Europe could potentially play a strong role in any international action against the settlements. Europe is Israel's largest trade partner, and Israel has a partnership with the EU giving its exports preferential status.
But divisions within Europe could make it difficult to take any concerted action. Germany, Europe's largest economy, has a close relationship with Israel, and given its history as the perpetrator of the Holocaust, it is unlikely to take any strong action against the Jewish state.
In last week's decision, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly recognized a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
Netanyahu rejects a return to the 1967 lines. His government also fears the Palestinians will use their upgraded status to join the U.N.'s International Criminal Court and pursue war crimes charges against Israel.
But Israel was joined by only eight other countries in opposing the bid, which was seen as a resounding international rejection of Israeli settlements in occupied territories. In a slap to Israel, its closest European allies — Britain, Germany, Italy and France — all abstained or voted with the Palestinians.
Israel has angrily condemned the vote as an attempt by the Palestinians to bypass negotiations. In particular, Netanyahu's government says it undermines any chance of negotiations over future border arrangements by endorsing the Palestinians' territorial demands.
The Israeli response to the U.N. decision was swift and strong. Just hours after Thursday's vote, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. It also said it would begin plans to develop a sensitive part of the West Bank just outside of Jerusalem.
Although construction is likely years off at best, the mere intention to build in the area known as "E1" is potentially explosive because of its strategic location in the middle of the West Bank. Israel also said it was withholding a regularly scheduled tax transfer to the Palestinians and using the money to pay off Palestinian debts to Israeli utilities.
After a flurry of angry European protests over the weekend, the Israeli ambassadors to Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark were all summoned by their hosts on Monday.
"I set out the depth of the U.K.'s concern about these decisions and I called on the Israeli government to reverse them. The settlements plan in particular has the potential to alter the situation on the ground on a scale that threatens the viability of a two-state solution," said Alistair Burt, Britain's minister for Mideast affairs.
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."