British-Israeli relations hit new low after settlement proposal

By Ian Dunt

Britain seemed to be on the verge of losing patience with Israel today, after a settlement expansion programme saw the UK threaten to withdraw its ambassador.

The move, which would be taken jointly with France, would mark a new low in British-Israeli relations, but the fact it is even being spoken of shows how frayed tempers have become.

Israel approved proposals to build 3,000 additional homes last week in the controversial E1 area of East Jerusalem. The move would cut off Palestinians off from the rest of the West Bank and make it almost impossible to create a viable Palestinian state.

"Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and undermine trust between the parties," foreign secretary William Hague said in an unusually strongly-worded statement.

"If implemented, these plans would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve.

"They would undermine Israel’s international reputation and create doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians. The UK strongly advises the Israeli government to reverse this decision."

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said it would be an "almost fatal blow" to peace hopes.

The Israeli move comes after 138 member states at the UN voted to upgrade Palestinian membership of the world body. In response, Israel froze the transfer of taxes they collect on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

According to the AFP news agency, Britain summoned Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub for talks over the planned settlements this morning.

Before it went as far as withdrawing its ambassador, Britain could also instigate several other measures, including the suspension of trade agreements, possibly by invoking human rights clauses.

The period marks an extremely dangerous moment for Israel which has never been so isolated on the world stage. The action in Gaza last month alienated many commentators and the UN vote saw it win precious little support, apart from the US.

Its latest authorisation of settlements has triggered much harsher criticism than usual from the international community.