Kerry and Hammond reject Israeli claims of betrayal over settlement plans

US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond both condemned new Israeli settlement building plans in the West Bank on Friday, the latest round of criticism to emerge in the wake of a report that U.S. diplomats angered Israel with statements on the issue.

Israel had said the reports were “baseless,” claiming that Kerry, Hammond and British Prime Minister David Cameron all spoke in error. But the Israeli government said it would rethink the suspension of peace talks with the Palestinians in response.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Tel Aviv on Friday that the Quartet of Middle East mediators – comprised of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia – will meet soon to discuss the matter. “This is a moment of real significance,” he said.

The remarks come after Israel’s decision to begin building around 3,000 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in response to a report in the New York Times published Tuesday saying that senior State Department officials had publicly called for a halt to settlement expansion earlier this year. The settlers also said Thursday they would begin construction on hundreds of housing units in the West Bank.

The Palestinians are opposed to the construction and say they will not resume talks with Israel over territorial concessions. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in a letter to Kerry last month, wrote that settlements “undermine U.S. interests in the region.”

Following Israel’s response, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Kerry had met several times with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May and June to discuss the dispute. Israeli officials have said the report was deliberately disseminated to undermine the possibility of Middle East peace talks.

The Quartet, in a statement released to foreign ministers of the EU and other Middle East countries, condemned “the resumption of building in the settlements, which has reached an all-time high and threatens to undermine the chances of resuming the talks which resumed in July 2010.”

Britain’s Hammond issued a separate statement Friday, saying that “peace talks are an essential component of a Middle East settlement” and that the “settlement expansion” was undermining Israel’s own security.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius followed suit with a statement on Friday, which said the reports had “damaged the credibility of Israel as an honest broker.”

Both reports were based on recordings leaked to the Times. The Times reported that “the diplomats said bluntly in private remarks last month that the dispute was ‘unfortunate,’ one of the officials said, calling the comments a ‘bad joke.’”

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