Israel's insistence on continued settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank amounted to "an act of deliberate vandalism", Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, said yesterday.
In a stinging attack on Israel, Mr Clegg said that its policies were doing "immense damage" to hopes of reaching a Middle East peace settlement.
Mr Clegg made his remarks after meeting with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who embarked on a new diplomatic offensive in Europe yesterday aimed at putting pressure on Israel to halt settlement building.
Later in the day, Mr Abbas held talks with Prime Minister David Cameron. Mr Abbas is to fly to Germany today and to Russia later in the week.
Growing British impatience with Israel over new building projects was evident at Mr Clegg's news conference in London.
"Once you've placed physical facts on the ground that make it impossible to deliver something that everyone has for years agreed is the ultimate destination [a two-state solution]," said Mr Clegg. "It is an act of deliberate vandalism to the basic premise on which negotiations have taken place for years and years and years."
Mr Clegg's remarks follow several weeks of an increasingly strident stance by Britain on the settlements policy. Mr Cameron raised the issue in a phone call to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israel prime minister, at the start of the year, while the Middle East minister Alistair Burt criticised the settlement activity last week.
While Mr Burt praised the Israelis for resuming the "talks about talks" in Amman, he said the settlement building undermined the belief that this was being undertaken in good faith.
Yesterday, Mr Clegg said that there was "no stronger supporter of Israel than myself as a beacon of democracy in the region".
But he said the "continued existence of illegal settlements risks making facts on the ground such that a two-state solution becomes unviable. That, in turn, will do nothing to safeguard the security of Israel itself or of Israeli citizens. That is why I condemn the continued illegal settlement activity in the strongest possible terms."
A Foreign Office spokesman in London said: "We are increasingly concerned about settlement building. We will continue lobbying the Israeli government in private and voicing our concerns in public."
By David Sapsted