East Jerusalem construction 'not a punishment,' says Netanyahu

New houses appear in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Qedar on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Story highlights

  • The White House expresses disappointment at Israel's move
  • Netanyahu: "It is our national right to build our capital"
  • Abbas' spokesman said the decision is "to accelerate the destruction of the peace process"
  • The announcement follows UNESCO's approval of the Palestinians' bid for full membership
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his government's decision Wednesday to speed up construction in East Jerusalem.
"We will continue to build in Jerusalem. This is our right and obligation," Netanyahu said at a Knesset memorial ceremony for former tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, who was assassinated by Palestinian militants a decade ago.
"This is not a punishment -- it is our national right to build our capital. I guarantee that we will never return to the situation we had on the evening of the Six Day War," Netanyahu said.
His remarks came a day after his government announced it was expediting construction of 2,000 housing units in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank and suspending the transfer of Palestinian tax revenue in wake of the Palestinian Authority's successful membership bid at UNESCO, the U.N. cultural, science, and education agency.
British Foreign Minister William Hague released a statement Wednesday condemning the Israeli measures and calling them "a serious blow to the (Middle East) Quartet's efforts to restart peace negotiations."
"This settlement building program is illegal under international law and is the latest in a series of provocative and unhelpful settlement announcements," he said in the statement.
In Washington, White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama's administration was "deeply disappointed" with Israel's announcement.
"Unilateral actions work against efforts for direct negotiations" necessary to achieve a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Carney told reporters Wednesday.
On Tuesday, a senior Israeli official said the planned construction involves 1,650 units in East Jerusalem and the rest in the West Bank settlements of Efrat and Maaleh Adumin.
The construction will take place in areas that are expected to be part of Israeli territory in any future peace agreement, the official said, and there is no contradiction between it and the various peace plans that have been on the table.
Palestinians claim the land Israel occupied in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after the 1967 war as part of a future Palestinian state.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said repeatedly that the Palestinians will not return to negotiations until Israel halts all settlement construction and accepts the borders in place before the 1967 Six Day War.
Israel, for its part, has maintained that negotiations should begin with no preconditions.
"You cannot expect Israel to continue to be restrained when the Palestinian Authority leadership repeatedly slams the door in our face," said the Israeli official, who was not authorized to speak to the media.
As an example of a door slamming, the official cited the UNESCO bid and the effort to win membership in the United Nations among other instances of Palestinian actions that damaged prospects for a peace deal.
The Israeli government has also put a temporary hold on the transfer of Palestinian tax revenue collected by the Israeli government, the official said. Palestinians rely on the revenue to fund government operations, including the payment of public sector salaries.
Hague, in his statement, expressed concern about that as well, saying it would have "direct implications for the Palestinian Authority's ability to maintain effective security in the West Bank."
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, Abbas' spokesman, criticized the Israeli construction announcement Tuesday, calling the decision one "to accelerate the destruction of the peace process," according to WAFA, the Palestinian Authority's official news agency.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Mohamad Ishtayeh also condemned the move.
"Two days ago, they (the Israeli government) announced the building of 1 million settlement housing units over the span of 10 years. What Israel decided today was another episode in settlement construction. Using the UNESCO Palestinian membership is only looking for excuses and another way of building settlement housing units. This fits within the overall plan which was announced two days ago before the UNESCO vote," he told CNN.
Separately on Tuesday, the permanent observer of the Palestinian Authority to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, said he sent a letter to the U.N. secretary-general and the president of the Security Council about Israel.
"We write today to express our grave concern about the military escalation undertaken by Israel, the occupying Power, against the Gaza Strip," he wrote. Within the past four days, Israeli airstrikes have killed at least 11 people and injured many more, Mansour said.
Since Saturday, scores of rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, resulting in the death of one Israeli civilian and the temporary closure of schools and universities in the southern part of the country.
The United States said Monday that it would cut funding to UNESCO after the agency voted in support of Palestinian membership.
The vote, which required two-thirds approval by UNESCO members, passed with 107 in favor, 14 against, and 52 abstentions.
It was the first such vote by a part of the world body and is separate from the Palestinian bid for full membership in the United Nations.
After Monday's vote, Palestinian officials told CNN they are considering the pursuit of membership in other international groups, such as the World Health Organization.
"Instead of sitting around the negotiating table," Netanyahu said after the vote, Palestinian leaders "have decided to make an alliance with Hamas and are carrying out one-sided endeavors in the U.N., including today. We will not sit with folded arms against these measures which are hurting Israel and are violating bluntly the most basic obligations the parties took in the peace process, to solve the conflict between us through negotiations."