Most members of the U.N. Security Council voiced deep concerns on Tuesday about the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and criticized Israel for pressing ahead with the construction of new settlements.

Council members were reacting to a briefing by U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who told them the search for peace remained elusive in a context of tensions on the ground, deep mistrust between the parties and volatile regional dynamics.

Statements criticizing Israel were made on behalf of at least nine of the 15 council members.

Representatives of Britain, France, Germany and Portugal said Fernandez-Taranco's briefing made clear to the council that Israeli settlement activity was undermining attempts to restart stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

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 four European Union council members said in a joint statement.

Israel's continuing announcements to accelerate the construction of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, send a devastating message, said the statement, which was read to reporters by British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.

The Europeans called for an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activity, adding they hoped the government would follow through on promises to bring settlers guilty of violence to justice.

Without explicitly naming the United States, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin accused Washington of turning a blind eye to the way efforts to restart the peace process have come to nothing.

There is one delegation which would not want to hear anything about it, any kind of a statement, which believes that somehow things will sort of settle themselves somehow miraculously out of their own, Churkin said.

ISRAEL BLAMES PALESTINIANS

The United States has veto powers on the Security Council, which it has exercised repeatedly for decades to prevent the council from condemning Israel.

A U.S. spokesman said the only way to resolve the outstanding issues between Israelis and Palestinians is through serious and substantive direct negotiations.

South African Ambassador Baso Sangqu read a statement on behalf of the 120-nation bloc of non-aligned countries that generally reiterated the European statement, describing settlement activities as illegal and the main impediment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Brazilian Ambassador Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti echoed Sangqu's words in a statement she read on behalf of Brazil, India and South Africa. Lebanon's U.N. envoy Nawaf Salam made similar remarks.

Karean Peretz, spokeswoman for Israeli's U.N. mission, reacted by saying the main obstacle to peace has been, and remains, the Palestinians' claim to the so-called right of return and its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Churkin, the Russian envoy, said the series of addresses to the media on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a completely new development.

Palestinian observer Riyad Mansour told reporters that one powerful member of the Security Council - the United States - was preventing it from dealing with the settlements issue and other problems related to the Middle East peace process.

In September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas submitted an application for full membership in the United Nations, which the Security Council would have to approve for it to go to the General Assembly for a vote.

Churkin said the council was prepared to act on the Palestinian application as soon as a draft resolution is submitted that could be voted on. So far, no country has submitted one, which Churkin suggested was probably due to the fact that Washington would strike it down.

In February, the U.S. delegation vetoed a council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in territories the Palestinians hope to include in any future peace settlement. The United States was the only council member to vote against it.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip; Editing by John O'Callaghan)