US takes tougher tone on Israeli settlements in new report
The United States will endorse a tougher tone with Israel in an upcoming international report that takes the Jewish state to task over settlements, demolitions and property seizures on land the Palestinians claim for a future state, diplomats told The Associated Press.
The U.S. and its fellow Mideast mediators also will chastise Palestinian leaders for failing to rein in anti-Israeli violence. But the diplomats involved in drafting the document said its primary focus will be a surge of construction in Jewish housing in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The U.S. approval of the harsh language marks a subtle shift. Washington has traditionally tempered statements by the so-called "Quartet" of mediators with careful diplomatic language, but the diplomats said the U.S. in this case will align itself closer to the positions of the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, who emphasize Israel's role in the Mideast impasse.
The report's release is sure to infuriate Israel, where officials are already bracing for expected criticism. And on the other side, although the mediators will endorse some long-standing Palestinian complaints, the Palestinians are likely to complain the report does not go far enough.
Diplomats acknowledge the report, which could come out in late May or June, will be largely symbolic, requiring no action. It could be unveiled at the U.N. and possibly sent to the Security Council for an endorsement, according to the diplomats, who included three U.S. officials. They all demanded anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the unfinished work publicly.
The diplomats said the report is intended to highlight obstacles to a two-state peace agreement -- the stated goal of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders -- and offer recommendations for restarting negotiations in a process that is stalled.
The Palestinians don't want talks as long as settlement construction continues; the Israelis say they're open to negotiations, but have shown little interest in making any meaningful concessions.
One diplomat said the report would be "balanced" because it would criticize the Palestinians for incitement and violence against Israeli citizens. Near-daily attacks in recent months by Palestinians, mostly stabbings, have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans. Some 193 Palestinians have been killed. Israel says most of these were attackers and the rest died in clashes with Israeli forces.
But the diplomat added that those involved in writing the report understand the focus on Israel will be its most contentious aspect.
Another diplomat said Israel will be put "on notice" that its appropriation of land isn't going unnoticed.
The document won't look only at east Jerusalem activity and West Bank settlement construction, but also at a "problematic trend" of legalizing smaller so-called outposts, the officials said. In addition, it will criticize Israel for a growing backlog of housing block approvals.
In 1972, there were just over 10,000 Israeli settlers, with 1,500 living in the West Bank and the rest in east Jerusalem. Two decades later, by the time of the Oslo peace accords, there were 231,200 Israelis living in the territories. That number rose to 365,000 by 2000, when the second Palestinian uprising began, and 474,000 by the time Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister again in 2008.
The settlements are now home to more than 570,000 Israelis, according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now -- 370,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in east Jerusalem. Settlements range from small wildcat outposts on West Bank hilltops to developed towns with shopping malls, schools and suburban homes.
Some 2.2 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, with another 300,000 in east Jerusalem. Israel captured both territories after the 1967 war.
The Quartet, which is supposed to guide the two parties to peace, has been largely irrelevant for the past several years. It was created in 2002 at a low point in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and in the years since has held sporadic meetings. Most have ended with bland statements condemning violence, criticizing settlements and calling for both sides to improve security and the atmosphere for peace talks.
The new report will repeat those calls, but the diplomats said they hoped the new criticism of Israel, in particular, would jolt the parties into action.
The Palestinians recently put off their push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, in part because of the coming report, the diplomats said. And with anti-Israel sentiment growing in Europe, France may delay a planned May 30 meeting of foreign ministers on the situation.
The French also are talking about hosting a Mideast peace conference this summer. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to discuss the French initiative with Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault while on a trip to Paris next week.
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