For Benjamin Netanyahu, plans to expand Israeli settlements may risk a diplomatic crisis with Europe but could prove a good bet at the ballot box.
With a Jan. 22 election looming, the Israeli leader has defied long-standing international opposition to settlements and announced plans to build at least 3,000 more homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem after the United Nations’ de facto recognition of Palestinian statehood.
Standing up to Europe, where a string of Israeli diplomats were summoned for reprimands by the governments of Britain, France, Spain, Sweden and Denmark on Monday, could help cement right-wing voter support for the conservative prime minister.
“We feared that politicians would clamber over themselves to show who could be tougher with the Palestinians. However we had hoped that Netanyahu would show more restraint. It didn’t happen,” said a Western diplomat in Jerusalem.
“We did not want the Palestinians to go to the United Nations during an Israeli election campaign precisely for this reason,” the diplomat said.
Israel rebuffed European protests and appeals to reverse course on the settlement drive, saying it would “stand by its vital interests, even in the face of international pressure”.
Settlement projects on land Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War are considered illegal by most world powers and have routinely drawn condemnation from them. Some 500,000 Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
But this time, the government also ordered new “planning work” in one of the most highly sensitive areas of the West Bank known as “E1”. Israeli housing on its barren hills could split the West Bank in two, denying the Palestinians a viable state.
Many Israelis have traditionally viewed the United Nations and many European governments as being particularly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.