Has Israel's settlement expansion crossed a 'red line'?

Both Britain and France have summoned Israel's ambassadors to protest plans to expand construction in East Jerusalem, while some say more serious action like economic reprisals are possible. 

Baz Ratner/REUTERS
Goats graze near the Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem Dec. 1, 2012. Israel announced on Friday it was authorizing 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel's plan to move forward with controversial settlements in eastern Jerusalem – which it took in apparent retaliation for the Palestinian Authority's recent, successful pursuit of recognition as a United Nations nonmember observer state – is prompting an angry response, and likely "real action," from Europe.

Haaretz reports that Britain, France, and Sweden have all summoned Israel's respective ambassadors to their countries to condemn the Israeli plan to build 3,000 new settlement units in the "E1" bloc, a region in eastern Jerusalem, while Germany and Russia both called upon Israel to rethink its plans. And more serious action may be coming, including substantial economic reprisals, Haaretz adds.

“This time it won’t just be a condemnation, there will be real action taken against Israel,” a senior European diplomat said.

Sky News confirmed that the British government was considering severe actions over the matter, quoting sources in the Foreign Office on Monday as saying: "All options are on the table," adding that there was an "appetite for action" within the bureau, and that officials may consider "revisiting" or even suspending EU trade agreements with Israel, based on human rights clauses. ...

[Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s decision Friday to move ahead on planning in E1 and to build 3,000 housing units in the settlement blocs and in East Jerusalem, has apparently shocked the foreign ministries and the leaders in London and Paris. Not only do Britain and France view construction in E1 as a “red line,” they are reportedly angry because they view Israel as having responded ungratefully to the support the two countries gave it during the recent Gaza operation.

Haaretz writes that according to three senior European Union diplomats, Britain and France are coordinating their response to Israel, and have discussed recalling their ambassadors, a major diplomatic rebuke and a first for both countries against Israel. A French Foreign Ministry official told Reuters, however, "There are other ways in which we can express our disapproval" than by recalling ambassadors.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement to expand the E1 settlements comes just a day after the UN voted overwhelmingly to recognize the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a state, albeit one with "nonvoting observer status" in the UN. The move passed 138 to 9, with 41 abstentions.  Britain and Germany, both longtime supporters of Israel, abstained from the vote, while France, Russia, and Sweden all supported the PA.  The United States was among the few opposition votes.

Building in the E1 region is particularly sensitive, as it would potentially cut off the West Bank from Jerusalem, which a Palestinian state, sharing with Israel, would use as its capital. The BBC's Jonathan Marcus notes that Israel has told successive US administrations that it would not build in the E1 region, and that such policy change is provocative even to Washington.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman criticized Israel's E1 expansion as a violation of international law. Mr. Ban's office released a statement Sunday saying he viewed the Israeli move with "grave concern and disappointment."

Settlements are illegal under international law and, should the E-1 settlement be constructed, it would represent an almost fatal blow to remaining chances of securing a two-state solution.

Catherine Ashton, the EU's head of foreign affairs, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also criticized the decision along similar lines, reports The Guardian. Ms. Ashton said the move "may represent a strategic step undermining the prospects of a contiguous and viable Palestine with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both it and Israel," while Mr. Fabius called it a "new area of colonization" that would "sap the necessary confidence in a resumption of talks."

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