JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister on Monday accused the international community of "deafening silence" in response to recent vows by the head of the Hamas militant group to fight on until the Jewish state is destroyed, and appeared unmoved by the gathering storm of global condemnation of his government's plans to continue settling the West Bank.
Benjamin Netanyahu's tough words were likely to deepen the rift between Israel and some of its closest allies, particularly in Europe, that has emerged since the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of Palestinian independence last month. In a sign of the tense relations, European Union foreign ministers were gathered in Brussels to condemn new settlement construction that Netanyahu has authorized in response to the U.N. decision.
Speaking to foreign reporters, Netanyahu accused the international community of having double standards, condemning not-yet-built settlements in the West Bank while standing quiet during a historic visit to the Gaza Strip by Hamas' exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal.
Making his first trip to the Hamas-ruled territory over the weekend, Mashaal delivered a series of speeches to throngs of supporters vowing to wipe Israel off the map. The visit underscored Hamas' rising clout and regional acceptance since its eight-day conflict with Israel last month.
Netanyahu also directed his ire at Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, for not speaking out.
"This weekend the leader of Hamas, sitting next to the Hamas leader of Gaza, a man who praised Osama Bin Laden, this weekend openly called for the destruction of Israel. Where was the outrage? Where were the U.N. resolutions? Where was President Abbas?" Netanyahu said.
"Why weren't Palestinian diplomats summoned to European and other capitals to explain why the PA president not only refused to condemn this but actually declared his intention to unite with Hamas. There was nothing, there was silence and it was deafening silence," he added.
Netanyahu has long complained that the world unfairly singles out Israel for criticism. In Monday's address, he accused the United Nations of passing an unbalanced resolution that supported Palestinian independence but did not address Israeli security concerns.
The U.N. resolution recognized a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Just eight countries sided with Israel in opposing the vote.
Although it does not end Israel's occupation of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the resolution gave an international endorsement to the Palestinian position on the borders between Israel and a future Palestine. It also amounted to a broad condemnation of Israeli settlements in the two areas. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
Netanyahu, who rejects a return to Israel's 1967 lines, responded to the U.N. resolution with plans to build thousands of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The most contentious plan is to develop a corridor linking east Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The Palestinians say this project, known as E1, would deal a death blow to any hopes for peace since it would separate the West Bank from east Jerusalem, their hoped-for capital, and drive a deep wedge between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank by creating a string of settlements jutting nearly halfway across the West Bank.
Israeli officials say construction on the E1 project is years away. But the country has come under fierce criticism by its closest allies, the U.S. and major countries in Western Europe.
Last week, a string of Israeli ambassadors were summoned for official reprimand in European capitals, and on Monday, EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss a response to the plan.
Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said the Israeli construction plans have caused "extreme concern" in the 27-nation EU. "What the Israelis did on E1 has shifted opinions in Europe," Bildt said as he arrived for the meeting. "I don't think the Israelis are aware of this."
The Palestinians say they turned to the U.N. in frustration after a four-year freeze in peace efforts under Netanyahu. The Palestinians say they will not resume talks unless Netanyahu halts settlement construction and accepts the 1967 lines as the basis for talks.
Netanyahu played down the international criticism and blamed the Palestinians for the impasse. He noted that a 10-month partial settlement freeze he imposed in 2010 had failed to restart negotiations.
"The reason why the Palestinians avoided negotiations for the past four years is a very simple one. They avoided negotiations because they were willing to take concessions from Israel but they were not prepared to make concessions to Israel," he said.
Netanyahu said that negotiations should resume without any conditions, and even held out the possibility of abandoning the E1 plan.
"We remain committed and this is what we prefer, a bilateral negotiation without preconditions in which all these questions can be raised, that is our preference and I hope the Palestinian Authority will go that route because it is better for them and it is better for us," he said.
While Netanyahu's term has been characterized by tensions with Israel's allies, he remains popular at home and appears set to win a new term as head of a hard-line coalition in parliamentary elections next month.
Netanyahu told the audience he had made great gains during his term. He claimed he had helped draw attention to Iran's suspect nuclear program, beefed up Israel's cybersecurity and missile defences, and fortified Israel's southern border with Egypt to prevent militant attacks and waves of African migrants from entering the country.
Yet in a moment of candour, he signalled that his sometimes rocky relations with President Barack Obama could have been handled better. "Who doesn't have regrets?"
Ian Deitch contributed to this report from Jerusalem