JERUSALEM — The Obama administration presented new demands to Israel this week to avoid taking any actions that might disrupt the fledgling peace talks with the Palestinians, among them a newly announced plan to demolish more than 100 Palestinian homes in Jerusalem, senior Israeli officials said Friday.
"The U.S. has moved from asking to making stronger demands to make sure the peace talks go forward," a senior official in the Israeli foreign ministry told McClatchy. "They don't want to see a massive failure where the negotiations fail before they've even started."
The U.S. also demand that Israel prosecute Jewish settlers who are suspected of using violence against Palestinians.
But the U.S. delegation led by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell said it was "fine if Israel — formally and loudly — defies the U.S., as long as their actions do otherwise," said the official, who couldn't be quoted by name because he wasn't authorized to make public remarks.
Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital, and it insisted again this week that Jewish building would continue throughout the city. Palestinians, however, consider Jerusalem the capital of their future state and say Jewish building there is a major stumbling block to the U.S.-led peace talks.
The Israeli government has refused to make a formal decision halting settlement construction in Jerusalem and repeatedly voiced defiance of U.S. demands. Celebrating the Jerusalem Day holiday on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: "We will continue to build and to be built in Jerusalem."
He went on: "We will continue to plan and to create. Jerusalem shall never be divided again. We must remember that Jerusalem was divided in half and there was no peace. Each side will make its demands, but in the end, we have a right to Jerusalem."
In similar addresses that day, Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai said that settlements throughout Israel would continue to grow, and Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich announced that demolition orders were ready to be carried out against 109 Palestinians homes in East Jerusalem. Israel maintains that the homes were built without legal permits, while Palestinians say Israel refuses to issue such permits to Palestinians.
Following U.S. pressure, however, Netanyahu told Aharonovich and Yishai to curb their rhetoric, the official said. Israeli pro-settler groups have already stated that a de facto slowdown is limiting Jewish projects in East Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem municipal government has confirmed that housing demolitions would be postponed by "at least" two weeks.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's envoy, Lt. Gen. Paul Selva, met Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon this week and asked Israel to do more to curb the violence of some settlers, Israeli officials said.
Last month, a series of attacks against Palestinians was traced to settlers in the northern West Bank. The attacks were believed to be part of a "price tag" policy by which settlers seek retribution for anti-settlement policies by targeting Palestinians. Israeli authorities have said settlers were responsible for burning down a mosque just outside the Palestinian village of Nablus and attacking several cars.
The nearby settlement of Yitzhar has been widely blamed for similar attacks in the past, and Israeli authorities have said there's evidence to suggest that the "price tag" policy originated there.
Selva asked Israel to prosecute those responsible for the attacks to the fullest extent of the law and to prevent similar attacks. Israeli officials responded that they'd continue to investigate the charges against the settlers.
The Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronot summarized the current Israeli policy as "scream loudly in one direction and walk in another."
"Israel is listening to the requests from the U.S., and answering them quietly. Our allies understand that this is the best way forward," said the foreign ministry official.
Netanyahu's aides have explained to the Americans that he is juggling a difficult and largely right-wing coalition that will contest any compromises regarding the settlements or East Jerusalem.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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