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The Monitor Breakfast

Israeli envoy calls divisive settlement plan a politically necessary reprisal

Settlement plans east of Jerusalem – decried by the US and Europeans – were meant to punish Palestinians and satisfy domestic political pressure in Israel, Ambassador Michael Oren says.

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Israel’s recent decision to proceed with plans for settlement construction in a hypersensitive strip of occupied land east of Jerusalem was meant as a signal to Palestinian leaders that Israel will not let provocative actions go unpunished, the Israeli ambassador to Washington said Tuesday.

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Speaking at a Monitor-hosted lunch with reporters, Ambassador Michael Oren placed the announcement of plans for settlement construction in the so-called “E1” tract of land in the context of the Palestinians’ successful bid Nov. 29 for enhanced United Nations status.

“We felt if the Palestinians were taking unilateral action in the UN, we had to also send the message that we could take unilateral actions,” he said.

Ambassador Oren addressed the E1 controversy in a wide-ranging discussion in which he described life for Israel in a Middle East of widespread upheaval and conflict as both “the worst of times” and – surprisingly – also “the best of times.”

He said Israel’s growing economy, strengthened relations with some of the world’s major or emerging powers, including Russia, China, and India, and a vibrant high-tech sector, make for an upbeat assessment of its future.  

Oren also characterized the announcement about E1 – a piece of land that separates the Palestinian cities of Ramallah to the north and Bethlehem to the south, even as it stands between Jerusalem and large existing Israeli settlements – as a political decision meant to address what he said was “pressure from a significant part of the Israeli electorate” to respond to the Palestinians’ UN move.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for early elections, which will take place Jan. 20.

The decision to proceed to planning and permitting for E1 construction has estranged Israel from many of its European allies and drew protests from the State Department.

A long line of Israeli leaders has considered retention of control over E1 as critical to Jerusalem’s security. But many Middle East experts say settlement construction in the E1 lands would strike the death knell of the two-state solution, because it would make any future Palestinian state unviable.

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