US, UN lead critics of Israel settlements

ISRAELI Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met a barrage of UN and US criticism of his country’s new settlements in the Palestinian territories in tough talks in New York.

Israel’s approval of 1300 more homes in annexed east Jerusalem overshadowed Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to put pressure on the Palestinians during his US tour and plans to pull Israeli troops out of a contested village on the Lebanon border.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern to Mr Netanyahu about the new settlements, just after the US administration expressed deep disappointment at Israel’s announcement.

Mr Ban and Mr Netanyahu focused on the deadlocked Middle East peace process in a meeting at UN headquarters today. The Palestinian leadership has refused to hold direct talks since Israel ended a freeze on settlement building in September.

“The secretary general emphasised that it was vital to break the current diplomatic stalemate, resume negotiations and produce results”, a UN spokesman said.

Mr Ban “expressed concern at the resumption of the settlement activity and recent announcements of further settlement construction in east Jerusalem”.

The secretary general also “expressed hope for further measures by the government of Israel to ease the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza”, the UN spokesman said.

Mr Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said only that the prime minister and Mr Ban had “discussed efforts to renew the peace process, the Iranian issue” and the village of Ghajar on the border with Lebanon.

Mr Netanyahu is to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in New York on Friday at the end of his US tour.

The United States is “deeply disappointed by the announcement of advanced planning for new housing units in sensitive areas of east Jerusalem” and Mrs Clinton will raise the topic, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

On Thursday, Mrs Clinton will hold a video conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. She will also meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, the spokesman said.

Palestinian leaders have called the settlements a bid to sabotage peace talks.

But earlier today, Mr Netanyahu urged Palestinians to negotiate without conditions.

Speaking in New Orleans to the Jewish Federations of North America, Mr Netanyahu said: “If you want to live peacefully next to us come and negotiate peace with us.

“Palestinian leaders who genuinely want peace should stop placing preconditions and start negotiating peace.”

The activist group Peace Now said the timing of Israel’s announcement was not accidental as the plans had been ready since July 2008.

Mr Crowley said however that the announcement could be a bid “to embarrass the prime minister and to undermine the process”.

He said: “This is expressly why we have been encouraging the parties … to remain in direct negotiations, to return to direct negotiations and to work through these issues face to face. This is the only way that they’re going to be resolved.”

Mr Ban and Mr Netanyahu also discussed the broader region, including Iran and Lebanon, the UN spokesman said.

An Israeli official said yesterday that Mr Netanyahu would tell the UN leader of Israel’s plans to withdraw from the disputed border village of Ghajar and hand over control to the UN mission in Lebanon, UNIFIL.

“The prime minister said that he intends to convene the security cabinet upon his return to Israel in order to approve an arrangement regarding Ghajar, based among other things on Israel’s discussions with UNIFIL,”┬áhis spokesman said after the Ban meeting.

The village lies on the border of Lebanon, Syria and the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981.

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