BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union and Russia on Friday denounced Israel's plans to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and urged Israelis and Palestinians to take "bold and concrete steps towards peace".
Israeli officials said this week they would press on with plans to build 6,000 homes for settlers on land claimed by Palestinians, defying criticism from Western powers who fear the move will damage already faint hopes for a peace accord.
"The European Union and the Russian Federation are deeply dismayed by and strongly oppose Israeli plans to expand settlements in the West Bank and in particular plans to develop the E1 area," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement.
E1 is a wedge of land between East Jerusalem and the West Bank where Israel had previously held off under U.S. pressure.
"The EU and the Russian Federation underline the urgency of renewed, structured and substantial peace efforts in 2013," said the joint statement after an EU-Russia summit in Brussels.
Stung by de facto recognition of Palestinian sovereignty by the U.N. General Assembly last month, Israel announced it would expand settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Most countries deem the settlements illegal and have been especially troubled by Israel's declared intent to build in E1.
The EU and Russia, which together with the United States and the United Nations make up the Quartet of Middle East mediators, said the settlements were illegal under international law and were an obstacle to peace.
"The EU and the Russian Federation will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties," they said.
It was time to take "bold and concrete steps towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis", they said, calling for "direct and substantial negotiations without preconditions".
The EU and Russia called for the unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of goods and people to and from the Gaza Strip, and urged Israel to avoid any step that would undermine the financial situation of the Palestinian Authority.
They urged the Palestinian leadership to use Palestine's new U.N. status constructively and avoid steps that would deepen lack of trust and lead further away from a negotiated solution.
(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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