JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday dismissed international critics of Jewish settlements, calling them hypocrites and saying claims that the construction on occupied lands poses an obstacle to peace were "bogus."
Israelis and Palestinians began peace talks in July after years of stalemate and the Israeli government has come under heavy criticism for continuing its construction plans throughout talks. More than 500,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
But Netanyahu insisted continued construction in existing settlements was "part of the deal" when talks began and questioned the motives of those who were outraged now.
"I think this is a bogus claim," he said in his annual address to international journalists. "I think that this is hypocritical."
While the Palestinians dropped a longstanding demand that Israel halt all settlement construction when peace talks resumed, they say they received assurances that Israel would show restraint. Since then, Israel has approved plans for thousands of new settler homes.
The Palestinians, and the international community, view the settlements as illegal or illegitimate. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said the construction raises questions about Israel's commitment to peace.
In his comments, Netanyahu took specific aim at the European Union, which has been outspoken in its criticism of settlement construction. On Thursday, several EU countries, including Britain, France and Italy, said they would be summoning local Israeli ambassadors to protest the settlements, Israel's Foreign Ministry said.
Netanyahu questioned why the EU protested the construction of "a few houses," but did not summon Palestinian diplomats over Palestinian misdeeds.
"When did the EU call in the Palestinian ambassadors to complain about the incitement that calls for Israel's destruction?" he said.
"I think it is time to stop this hypocrisy. I think it is time to inject some balance and fairness to this discussion. Because I think this imbalance and this bias against Israel doesn't advance peace," he added. "I think it pushed peace further away because it tells the Palestinians, 'Basically you can do anything you want, say anything you want and you won't be held accountable.'"
Under heavy American pressure, Israel and the Palestinians resumed peace talks after a five year lull. So far, there have been no outward signs of progress, and the talks have been marred by finger pointing by both sides.
With an April target date for an agreement approaching, the U.S. has said Kerry will soon return with bridging proposals for a framework deal.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967, for an independent state.
Netanyahu wants to keep parts of the West Bank and says he will not share control of east Jerusalem, home to sensitive Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious sites. He also has insisted that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, a condition they say would undermine the rights of Palestinian refugees and Israel's own Arab minority.
Speaking Thursday, he repeated the demand, saying it was the core of the conflict.
"The real issue is not the settlements, is not the Palestinian state. The real issue was and always has been the Jewish state. The persistent refusal to accept a nation-state for the Jewish people by our adversaries, whom we want to turn to peace partners," he said.
Netanyahu spoke shortly after returning from a surprise visit to Jordan, where he met with King Abdullah II to discuss the latest in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. When asked, Netanyahu said the meeting was "excellent" but refused to divulge details.