UK set to talk tough to Israel as Abbas visits

The British government has stepped up its war of words with Israel over settlement building in advance of an official visit next week by Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Ministers have grown increasingly frustrated by what they see as Benjamin Netanyahu's intransigent position on the issue, which is seen as a serious hurdle to peace in the region.

The Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies have been called in for a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and officials just before Mr Abbas's arrival on Monday.

The meeting is the first of its kind since the election and has led to speculation that senior members of the Jewish community are being "softened up" for British concessions to the Palestinians or even some form of economic or diplomatic action against Israel.

Mr Cameron used this week's Prime Minister's Questions to emphasise that he had raised settlements during a New Year phone call with Mr Netanyahu.

Speaking at Bar Ilan University on Tuesday, Middle East Minister Alistair Burt spelt out the UK position in some detail. He hailed the political leadership shown by Israel in recommencing talks with the Palestinians in Jordan.

But he said settlement building undermined the belief that this was being done in good faith "because building more and more houses across the Green Line does not show that Israel is absolutely committed to finding a just and lasting solution. It risks sending exactly the opposite signal."

The minister, known as a long-standing friend of Israel, said: "I have to tell you that the absence of progress towards peace, together with the almost weekly announcements of this tender or that planning permission for new building, has a real effect on how the world sees Israel."

His language reflects a hardening of the UK government's position on Israeli settlements. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We are increasingly concerned about settlement building. We will continue lobbying the Israeli government in private and voicing our concerns in public".

However, there are no immediate plans for UK sanctions against Israel if settlement building continues.

The hardening of the rhetoric follows a row in Israel over comments made last week by UK Ambassador Matthew Gould condemning new settlement building which he believed had been announced just as the negotiators were meeting in Amman. "This is unhelpful and a disappointment to those who want to see the sides turn a corner," he said.

It later emerged that the plans for settlements in Pisgat Ze'ev and Har Homa had been part of a long-standing process and Mr Gould had to row back, saying the lack of new tenders for settlements was a "welcome reassurance".

    Last updated: 12:16pm, January 12 2012