U.N. Security Council Considers Israeli Settlement Issue

January 20, 2011 - 6:54 AM

United Nations (AP) - Palestinian diplomats found international support Wednesday for their complaint that Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory are illegal, but the U.S. strongly opposed bringing the matter up in the U.N. Security Council.

During a council session that lasted most of the day, representatives of dozens of countries supported Palestinian complaints about continued construction of settlements while peace efforts falter.

Although a draft council resolution circulated on the matter never came to a vote Wednesday - and would surely have failed because of U.S. objections - the Palestinians drew renewed attention to their grievances in a campaign to isolate and pressure the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In another move for international recognition, Palestinians raised their flag over the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington for the first time on Tuesday.

Early in Wednesday's U.N. session, the U.S., among five permanent members on the 15-country council with veto power, signaled it would not back the resolution sponsored by Lebanon. An additional 122 countries signed on as co-sponsors.

It was presented as the council engaged in open debate on the Middle East, including Palestinian issues.

It is unclear when a vote on the matter may be scheduled, but Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian observer to the U.N., suggested it may not be considered for some time.

"If it was up to us, we would love to see the Security Council acting on it immediately," Mansour said during a session break, acknowledging that U.S. opposition would make it difficult.

Key Middle East peace issues "can be resolved only through negotiations between the parties - and not by recourse to the Security Council," said Rosemary A. DiCarlo, deputy U.S. representative to the U.N. "We therefore consistently oppose attempts to take these issues to this council."

But DiCarlo said the U.S. remains committed to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if agreed to by both parties.

The proposed resolution reiterates demands that Israel halt all settlement building in Palestinian territory. It says that settlements built in occupied territory since 1967, including disputed East Jerusalem, "are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace."

The resolution also calls on Israel and the Palestinians to continue negotiations to wrap up final issues by September 2011 as called for by the so-called Quartet of Mideast peacemakers - the U.S., the U.N., the European Union and Russia. It said international and regional diplomatic efforts should be intensified to support and invigorate the peace process.

Israel did not participate in the Security Council debate Wednesday because of a labor dispute involving Israeli foreign service employees, the country's mission to the U.N. said.

But in Jerusalem, Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev suggested the proposed resolution was counterproductive and pointed out that the Palestinians in the past committed to direct talks.

"The Palestinians have made a series of commitments that all the issues of dispute between us and them should be resolved in direct negotiations," said Regev. "By refusing to negotiate, they are breaking their most fundamental commitments to what the process is about."

U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, launched in September, quickly broke down over Israel's refusal to extend a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements and to include east Jerusalem, both claimed by the Palestinians, along with the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks unless settlement construction is halted.

Briefing the council, B. Lynn Pascoe, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, said that U.N. officials are worried about a lack of progress on a negotiated peace settlement and noted that the Quartet peacemakers will meet in Munich on Feb. 5.

"Peace and Palestinian statehood cannot be delayed," he said.

Pascoe repeated Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's calls for Israel to freeze all settlement activity.

"Further settlement expansion in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, continues to undermine trust and prejudices final status discussions," Pascoe warned.

He said there had been a sharp increase in settlement construction since a building moratorium ended on Sept. 26, with construction started on as many as 2,000 units in the West Bank since then.

Pascoe also said U.N. officials remain "extremely concerned" about increased tensions in Gaza, and condemned the "indiscriminate" firing of rockets and mortar shells by Palestinian militants into civilian areas in Israel.

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Associated Press writer Ian Deitch in Jerusalem contributed to this report.