JERUSALEM — Israel Thursday rejected President Barack Obama's demand that it halt the construction of additional Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, hours before the White House sent U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell to re-evaluate his mission.
"There will be no freeze on construction in Jerusalem. Everyone knows it," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israeli television Thursday night.
Friday will mark the first talks in the region by Mitchell since last month, when a diplomatic crisis erupted over Israel's continued insistence on building more homes for Jewish settlers in what until 1967 was Arab land.
White House Spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed the visit, and said that Mitchell would meet Palestinian officials on Friday. No meeting with the Israelis was announced.
American officials in Jerusalem said that Mitchell is hoping to persuade Palestinians to proceed with a U.S. plan for indirect peace talks. Palestinian officials, however, said they'd continue to insist that Israel halt settlement construction as a precondition to the talks.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said that Mitchell would need "the right formula for resuming proximity talks by having Israel stop settlement activities."
Thursday's Israeli announcement signaled no such intent, Erekat added.
Netanyahu aides said he was forced to reject the U.S. demands but didn't elaborate.
Addressing questions over ongoing tensions with Washington, Netanyahu said, "There are ups and downs. There is a very strong fabric of relations that will allow us to overcome these problems in the end and reach understandings."
Israel embarrassed the U.S. by announcing a massive East Jerusalem settlement expansion project at the beginning of a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Joe Biden. The Obama administration had hoped that the so-called proximity talks, which would be mediated by U.S. officials, would begin last month.
The confrontation over Israeli construction projects has halted those plans. In an attempt to move forward, Obama asked Israel to undertake 11 "confidence-building" measures to advance the U.S.-led peace plan.
Chief among those was to halve construction of all new Jewish homes, including those in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as the capital of a future independent state.
While Netanyahu has agreed to a partial freeze on settlement construction throughout the West Bank, he refuses to negotiate on Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its capital.
Netanyahu's largely right-wing coalition has rallied to his side, with several political leaders calling Obama's demand an "insult."
Israeli Science Minister Benny Begin, the son of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, lauded Netanyahu's response, saying that it was "just impossible and unacceptable that people try to impress us that we should limit construction in Jerusalem."
National Religious Party Chairman Daniel Herskovitz added that Netanyahu had given an "appropriate Zionist response" to Obama.
Israeli officials said that Netanyahu agreed to take several other steps to renew negotiations, including releasing some Palestinian prisoners, removing several West Bank checkpoints and easing the closure of the Gaza Strip, which has prevented Palestinians there from getting to jobs and shops in Israel.
More importantly, aides to Netanyahu said that housing construction in East Jerusalem won't begin for several years, and that planning meetings for future projects have been frozen.
An official in Jerusalem's municipality planning division confirmed that nearly half a dozen meetings that had been placed on the agenda were called off in the wake of the diplomatic flare-up with the U.S.
Writing in the left-leaning Hebrew daily Haaretz, columnist Akiva Eldar said that Netanyahu had made a "gentlemen's agreement" with Obama.
"What Obama has demanded from Netanyahu is in essence a 'gentlemen's agreement' that Israel will not launch new building tenders in East Jerusalem as long as proximity talks with the Palestinians continue," he wrote.
Eldar concluded that as far as America is concerned, "Netanyahu can run and tell his friends that what goes for Tel Aviv goes for Jerusalem — as long as Obama officials don't wake the next morning to newspaper reports that Israel has approved a new building program in the Holy City."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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