Palestinians and Israelis hardened their positions Wednesday over a contentious new settlement push around Jerusalem, with Israel going full throttle on plans to develop the area and the Palestinians trying to block it through an appeal to the U.N. Security Council.
The settlement push — Israel's retaliation for the Palestinians' success in winning U.N. recognition of a de facto state — has touched off an escalating international showdown. Palestinians claim the construction would deal a death blow to Mideast peace hopes. Even Israel's staunchest allies have been outraged by the move, feeding speculation they might squeeze Israel more than usual to back down on its construction plans.
The U.N. move came last week, with the General Assembly recognizing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel, which rejects a return to its 1967 lines, says borders with a future Palestine should be resolved through negotiations.
Although the Israelis say construction could be years away, the settlement plans have sent a message that within these U.N.-recognized borders, Israel remains in firm control. The plans include 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and intentions to press ahead with two other projects that would drive a wedge between east Jerusalem, the Palestinians' desired capital, and its West Bank hinterland.
International condemnation was harsher than usual, with some of Israel's closest European allies, including Italy and the European Union on Wednesday, calling in Israeli ambassadors for rebukes or issuing especially stern criticism. The issue was expected to be high on Germany's agenda during a visit to Berlin by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ahead of his arrival, Israel showed no signs of bending, holding a preliminary planning meeting for a new development in a section of the West Bank outside Jerusalem. The project, known under its Israeli administrative term "E-1," is the most contentious of the new settlement projects because of its strategic location.
The Palestinians said they would leverage their newfound U.N. status to seek a Security Council resolution to halt the Jerusalem-area plans.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was determined to block the settlement building near Jerusalem with all legal and diplomatic means.
"The settlement plans that Israel announced, especially E-1, are a red line," Abbas told reporters. "This must not happen."
The Palestinian representative to the United Nations said in letters to the council, the General Assembly and the secretary-general that the intensification of the Israeli campaign is clearly part of "Israel's contemptuous response" to the assembly's overwhelming vote last week to recognize the state of Palestine.
"Israel is methodically and aggressively pushing ahead with this unlawful land grab and colonization of Palestine with the intent to alter the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian territory, especially in and around East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, in its favor in order to entrench its illegitimate control of the land and prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations," the letter said.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner criticized the Palestinians for "unhelpful rhetoric" by talking about taking the Israelis to the Security Council as well as to the International Criminal Court over the settlements.
"Ultimately, both sides need to get back into direct negotiations," Toner said Wednesday. "The path to peace doesn't go through New York."
Passing a U.N. resolution will be no easy task, since the U.S., as a permanent member of the council, could veto any resolution.
Two years ago, the U.S. vetoed a similar attempt to condemn settlements, and officials in Washington said a veto would be likely this time as well unless the resolution condemned unilateral actions on both sides.
The U.S., while harshly critical of Israeli settlement construction, believes a one-sided resolution would undermine negotiations. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because a formal resolution has not yet been proposed at the U.N.
Although the U.S. has traditionally protected Israel from U.N. criticism, American officials have condemned Israel's decision to revive E-1 and would not relish being perceived as giving it tacit backing.
But President Barack Obama could also be reluctant to be perceived as punishing Israel, which is America's closest ally in the Mideast and enjoys strong Congressional backing. Obama's Mideast policies and frosty relations with Netanyahu became an issue in his re-election campaign.
The U.S. could avoid an uncomfortable choice by pressuring Israel to back down so things don't come to a Security Council showdown, said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.
"If the U.S. can stop the Israelis without the Security Council, they should do it," he said. "They (the Americans) cannot stop us and use the veto against people trying to save the peace process."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the Palestinians should resume talks with Israel instead of turning to the U.N. "Here is where it's at, not in New York," Palmor said. "If they have something to say, let them say it to us, directly."
Israel has moved more than 500,000 Jews into settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, complicating any future partition of the land into two states. The Palestinians oppose all settlement construction, saying it prejudices the outcome of peace talks, which stalled four years ago over settlements.
The Palestinians are particularly concerned about plans to build thousands of apartments in E-1 and a separate area called Givat Hamatos, on Jerusalem's eastern and southern edges.
Critics say the settlements would cut off traditionally Arab east Jerusalem from the West Bank and destroy hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. E-1 would also drive a deep wedge between the northern and southern West Bank.
Israel had frozen plans to develop E-1 as an expansion of Maaleh Adumim, its second-largest West Bank settlement, under intense pressure from successive U.S. administrations — but not before erecting a hulking police station and carving roads and terraces into the rocky terrain just east of Jerusalem.
While goats and sheep grazed on an empty hill there, plans for building 3,000 homes in the strategic corridor were presented for the first time Wednesday to the military committee that oversees planning in the West Bank. Military spokesman Guy Inbar said the meeting was a preliminary step and that construction could be years away.
A separate committee is to meet in mid-December to discuss advanced plans to build 2,600 apartments in Givat Hamatos, another mountainous stretch of land where a few dozen Jewish and Palestinian families live in rundown trailers with only the barest of services. It would be the first new Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem since 1997, also under Netanyahu.
Israel annexed east Jerusalem after capturing it 45 years ago, and claims the area as part of its capital. While the annexation is not internationally recognized, Netanyahu has said he will never agree to divide the holy city.
Skeptics have questioned whether Netanyahu actually intends to develop E-1, or is playing to hard-liners ahead of Israel's Jan. 22 election.
Attorney Daniel Seidemann, an expert on Jerusalem construction, called the Givat Hamatos project a "game-changer." Flanked by two other settlements in the southern part of east Jerusalem, it would create a string of settlements between the West Bank and Palestinian areas of east Jerusalem.
If E-1 "is a fatal heart attack" to peacemaking, then homes on Givat Hamatos would be "the silent killer, high blood pressure. They kill you just as dead," Seidemann said Wednesday.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.