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In the past two months Israel has received sometimes fierce criticism from the United Nations, European Union and United States over its announcement of plans to build more than 11,000 new houses on land Palestinians want for a future state.
Last week, Israel boycotted the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva as it was planning a routine review of the Jewish state. Days later, U.N. investigators issued a strongly worded report that said the settlements could constitute a war crime.
Israeli leaders have largely shrugged off the opprobrium. They assert a right to build on territory seized in a 1967 war and accused the Geneva council, which includes non-democratic states like Cuba and Saudi Arabia, of bias and hypocrisy.
However, past and present Israeli diplomats are nervous about the mounting friction as Israel faces a multitude of challenges piling up along its troubled borders, with Islamists taking power in Egypt and on the rise in Syria’s civil war.
“I am worried and so are many other Israelis,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.
“Our legitimacy is being eroded and the more isolated and delegitimised Israel is, the more difficult it will be to get public opinion on our side regarding Iran,” he added, referring to suspicions the Islamic Republic is seeking nuclear weapons.
Israelis started moving to the West Bank soon after the 1967 conflict, and the numbers soared in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords that granted limited self-rule to the Palestinian Authority - but placed no limits on Jewish settlement growth.
In 1993 there were an estimated 111,600 settlers in the territory. There are now more than 325,000, with a further 200,000 living in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel after 1967 in a move not recognised internationally and is claimed by the Palestinians as their capital city.
“A Palestinian state has never been further away than it is today,” Dani Dayan, outgoing head of the main settler council, was quoted as saying in the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“The settlements today are blossoming … There is almost no settlement without construction,” added Dayan, who endorsed Netanyahu ahead of the Jan. 22 election, which was won by the prime minister, albeit with a sharp fall in support.
Critics have long railed against the settlements, but successive Israeli governments have pushed back with vigour.