Middle East

U.N. chief alarmed by Israel’s approval of new settlement

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is disappointed and alarmed by Israel's decision to build a new settlement on land the Palestinians seek for a state and has condemned the move, his spokesman said on Friday.

Israel's security cabinet on Thursday approved the building of the first new settlement in the occupied West Bank in two decades, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu negotiates with Washington on a possible curb of settlement activity.

"He condemns all unilateral actions that, like the present one, threaten peace and undermine the two-state solution," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.

The White House appeared more accommodating to Israel's plans for the new settlement, intended for some 40 families evicted from Amona, a West Bank outpost razed in February because it was built on private Palestinian land.

A White House official noted Netanyahu had made a commitment to the Amona settlers before U.S. President Donald Trump and the Israeli leader agreed to work on limiting settlement activity.

Trump, who had been widely seen in Israel as sympathetic toward settlements, appeared to surprise Netanyahu during a White House visit last month, when he urged him to "hold back on settlements for a little bit."

The two then agreed that their aides would try to work out a compromise on how much Israel can build and where.

"The Israeli government has made clear that Israel's intent is to adopt a policy regarding settlement activity that takes President Trump's concerns into consideration," a written statement from the official said.

Following Thursday's announcement, Israeli officials said Netanyahu's security cabinet decided out of respect for Trump's peace efforts to limit construction in settlements to existing, built-up areas and not to expand beyond present boundaries.

The White House was informed in advance about the planned announcement of a new settlement as well as the Israeli policy shift and raised no objections, a person close to the matter said, signaling possible coordination between the two governments.

U.S. and Israeli officials completed a round of talks on the settlements last week without agreement, saying the discussions were ongoing, and the two sides have yet to announce any final understanding on the issue.

Trump's Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, this week wrapped up a second trip to the region aimed at reviving peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

Palestinians want the West Bank and East Jerusalem for their own state, along with the Gaza Strip.

Most countries view Israeli settlement activity as illegal and an obstacle to peace. Israel disagrees, citing biblical and historical ties to the land it captured in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as security concerns.

The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution in December that demanded a halt to settlement building, after the Obama administration decided to abstain from the vote instead of vetoing the moving.

Sweden's U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog, a member of the Security Council, said on Friday that the 15-member Security Council should respond to the latest announcement by Israel on settlements.

"The urgency of the situation and the deterioration on the ground might call for some sort of Security Council action, although we know that finding unity on this is not easy," he told reporters.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Bernadette Baum; Reuters

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