JERUSALEM – The U.N.’s Mideast envoy on Thursday criticized Israel’s renewed building in West Bank settlements in response to an Associated Press investigation.
The AP report showed that Israel has begun building at least 544 apartments since a 10-month halt on new housing starts in the settlements expired late last month. Palestinians charge that construction in the settlements is aimed at preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the issue has brought recently renewed U.S.-brokered peace talks to a standstill.
Also Thursday, world Jewish leaders broke with the past and demanded an active role in deciding Israel-Palestinian peace issues, singling out the fate of the holy city of Jerusalem.
In a statement, U.N. envoy Robert Serry called the AP settlement report “alarming.” He said settlement construction is “illegal under international law” and “will only further undermine trust.”
Despite intense U.S. pressure, Israel has so far refused to renew the construction curbs, saying the settlement issue should be addressed in negotiations.
Israel also drew criticism Thursday from former President Jimmy Carter, who is visiting Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.
After touring east Jerusalem flashpoints where Jewish settlers have moved in to houses after Palestinians were evicted, Carter expressed outrage.
“The suffering here under occupation and the deprivations of people in Gaza are evidence of the improper policies of the government of Israel,” he said. “We will continue to work on a peaceful solution where the Israelis will withdraw from east Jerusalem, and let this be the capital of a Palestinian state.”
Later, as Carter was being driven through east Jerusalem, a car driven by a Palestinian entered the motorcade, Israeli police said. The convoy halted, and armed guards took the Palestinian driver for questioning.
Palestinians demand control over east Jerusalem, with its key holy sites in the Old City, as part of any peace accord.
While world Jewish groups reflect the full range of political outlooks, many oppose concessions over Jerusalem’s holy sites as a matter of principle, regardless of the political or military price Israel might have to pay for standing firm. Past Israeli governments have offered concessions over Jerusalem, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not.
On Thursday a conference of international Jewish leaders demanded a say in deciding Jerusalem’s fate — a major change from the past.
“Jerusalem belongs to the entire Jewish people, and all Jews in the world should have a right to participate in the decision making on the future of Jerusalem,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“Issues such as security and defense rest only with the people of Israel and the government of Israel, but I think Jerusalem is different … I want the Jewish people to be involved in the discussion on the future of Jerusalem because it is our future as well.”
For decades, Diaspora Jews have given almost automatic support to Israel’s government in most issues affecting the nation, providing financial and political backing but leaving the final choices to Israel’s elected leaders.
Also, most Jews abroad have accepted the notion that only Israelis, who endure the daily rigors of life in Israel, pay its taxes and serve in its military, should be granted the right to decide its future.
Netanyahu’s office refused to comment on Hoenlein’s remarks.
Dan Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and an activist in dovish Israeli groups, said Israel is likely to resist calls like Hoenlein’s for an active role in decision-making.
“I don’t gather there is much interest at all in having world Jewish opinion actually have a vote,” he said. “I think some of the Diaspora Jews would like more than just to express their opinion, and that’s where the gap still is.”
Zeev Bielski, a lawmaker from the centrist Kadima Party and former chairman of the Jewish Agency, said Israel should welcome the involvement of caring Diaspora Jews like Hoenlein.
“If we are a Jewish state, we should accept the wishes of Jewish leaders to be involved, but only to a certain point,” he said. “Obviously, there are some issues that only the citizens of Israel can decide.”