A Palestinian labourer is seen at a construction site in
the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in file
photo. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files
Hours after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to
grant de-facto statehood to Palestine, Israel responded by
announcing it was authorising 3,000 new settler homes in the
West Bank and East Jerusalem.
An official, who declined to be named, said the government
had also decided to expedite planning work for thousands more
homes in a geographically sensitive area close to Jerusalem
that critics say would kill off Palestinian hopes of a viable
The decision was made on Thursday when it became clear that
the U.N. General Assembly was set to upgrade the
Palestinians' status in the world body, making them a
"non-member state", as opposed to an "entity", boosting their
The motion was backed by 138 nations, opposed by nine, while
41 members abstained - a resounding defeat that exposed its
growing diplomatic isolation.
An Israeli official had earlier conceded that this
represented a "total failure of diplomacy" and warned there
would be consequences - which were swift in coming.
Plans to put up thousands of new settler homes in the wake of
the Palestinian upgrade were always likely, but the prospect
of building in an area known as E-1, which lies near
Jerusalem and bisects much of the West Bank, is seen by some
as a potential game changer.
"E-1 will signal the end of the two state-solution," said
Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli expert on settlements. He added
that statutory planning would take another six to nine months
to complete, meaning building there was not a foregone
About 500,000 Israelis already live in the West Bank and East
Jerusalem on land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war -
territory the Palestinians claim for their independent state.
The United States, one of the eight countries to vote
alongside Israel at the U.N. General Assembly, said the
latest expansion plan was counterproductive to the resumption
of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Ahead of the U.N. vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
government had argued that the unilateral Palestinian move
breached their previous accords and accused the 193-member
world body of failing in its responsibilities.
"The General Assembly can resemble the theatre of the absurd,
which once a year automatically approves ludicrous,
anti-Israeli resolutions," said government spokesman Mark
"Sometimes these are supported by Europe, sometimes they are
not," he added, alluding to the fact that only one European
state, the Czech Republic, had voted against the
Nonetheless, analysts said the vote exposed the gulf that had
opened between Europe and Netanyahu over his handling of the
Western-backed administration of Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas, and the depth of EU opposition to settlement
"The government has failed to appreciate the gravity of the
challenge to Israel's fundamental legitimacy in Europe," said
Gidi Grinstein, head of the Reut Institute think-tank.
"The Palestinian bid in the U.N. is turning out to be a
bigger defeat than anticipated."
In many ways, Israel was caught off guard.
Last week it was fighting Islamist militants in the Gaza
Strip, grateful to see much of the West offering support for
its determination to stop indiscriminate rocket fire from the
Palestinian enclave whose leaders preach Israel's
The eight-day bombardment ended in a truce that was widely
viewed as handing Gaza's Hamas Islamists a PR boost at the
expense of Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organisation,
who have renounced violence in favour of diplomacy.
The West pumped billions into Abbas's administration over the
years to bolster a partner for Middle East peace and felt
they had to rally to his support in New York. Before the Gaza
conflict, the Palestinians said they would win 115 'yes'
votes at the United Nations. They ended up with more.
By itself, the U.N. upgrade will make little practical
difference to the Palestinians or Israelis. However, the new
position will enable Abbas to seek membership of the
International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague if he wants.
This is what worries Israel.
The Geneva Convention forbids occupying powers from moving
"parts of its own civilian population into the territory it
occupies", leaving Israeli officials potentially vulnerable
to an ICC challenge. Israel says its settlements are legal,
citing historical and Biblical ties to the West Bank and
The Palestinians say they are in no rush to go to the ICC,
but the threat is there, putting pressure on Israel to come
up with creative solutions to overcome the peace-talks
impasse, which the Jewish state blames on Abbas.
"This U.N. vote is a very strong signal to the Israelis that
they can't shove this matter under the carpet for any
longer," said Alon Liel, former director-general of the
Israeli Foreign Ministry. "This is a red light for Israel."
With politicians campaigning ahead of a Jan. 22 election,
Israel is unlikely to change course.
Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu's right-wing bloc will win a
new term in office. The coalition includes pro-settler
parties, and the prime minister's own Likud group appeared to
shift to the right in primaries this week, making any
land-for-peace compromise with the Palestinians look more
complex than ever.
His opponents seized on the U.N. vote, with ex-foreign
minister Tzipi Livni, aspiring to become Israel's second
female prime minister, blaming a failure of initiative.
"When we do not initiate, we are imposed upon," she said.
Israeli officials say the Palestinians themselves must show
they are ready to make the sort of concessions that they
believe are needed to secure an accord - such as renouncing
any right to return to modern-day Israel for refugees and
However, analysts say that with the elections out of the way,
the new government will have a period of calm to try once
more to end their decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.
"The strategy toward the Palestinian Authority and statehood
is likely to be on the top of the agenda of the next
government in the winter," said the Reut Institute's
"The outcome of its strategic reassessment may well be active
engagement in upgrading the powers and responsibilities of
the Palestinian Authority toward statehood, and eventually
recognising the Palestinian Authority as a state."
If E-1 building goes ahead, the chances of talks resuming
will be close to non-existent.