By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel Wednesday said four European U.N. Security Council members should support a resumption of stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks because their criticism of the Jewish state could sideline them from negotiations.
Tuesday, representatives of Britain, France, Germany and Portugal said a briefing by U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs Oscar Fernandez-Taranco had made clear to the 15-nation council that Israeli settlement activity was undermining attempts to restart peace talks.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry statement did not mention settlements but said that "interfering with Israel's domestic affairs, including on issues which are to be solved within the framework of direct talks, does not enhance the status they (the members) wish to be granted."
Peace talks brokered by the Quartet of Middle East negotiators - the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union - collapsed a year ago over Israel's refusal to halt construction in settlements. The Palestinians have refused to resume them unless Israel stops building.
Israel says negotiations should resume without preconditions and that most of its settlement construction takes place in areas it intends to keep in any future peace deal.
Most countries consider settlements Israel has built in the West Bank illegal, although Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical links to the land.
The Palestinians, who want to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, say settlement expansion will deny them a viable country.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal called for an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activity, adding that they hoped the government would follow through on promises to bring settlers guilty of violence to justice.
Militant West Bank settlers have waged what they call "Price Tag" attacks against Palestinian property, including vandalizing mosques, in revenge for violence against settlers and as retribution for Israeli government curbs on settlements.
"Israel's continuing announcements to accelerate the construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, send a devastating message," Britain's U.N. ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said, reading the four countries' joint statement Tuesday.
"One of the themes that emerged was the severely damaging effect that increased settlement construction and settler violence is having on the ground and on the prospects of a return to negotiations."
The Israeli statement said the four countries' "misreading" only added obstacles on the path toward new peace talks.
It said they must not give the Quartet plan "interpretations that contradict both the letter and the spirit" of the text.
"If ... they invest their efforts in inappropriate bickering with the one country where the independent law and justice system can handle lawbreakers of all kinds, they are bound to lose their credibility and make themselves irrelevant," the Israeli statement said.
(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)