JERUSALEM — The Obama administration is demanding that Israel call off a contentious building project in east Jerusalem and make a public gesture toward the Palestinians to help defuse one of the worst U.S.-Israeli feuds in memory, officials on both sides said Monday.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed little sign of yielding, saying Jewish construction in east Jerusalem “in no way” hurts Palestinians.
A Jerusalem city spokesman suggested Jewish building there would continue.
Announcement of the plan to build 1,600 apartments for Jews in the Ramot Shlomo neighbourhood came during vice-president Joe Biden’s visit last week, embarrassing him and the Obama administration, angering Palestinians and endangering the start of indirect peace negotiations that are to be mediated by a U.S. envoy.
Adding to tensions was a ceremony Monday in the walled Old City in east Jerusalem, where Jews rededicated an ancient synagogue destroyed after the war that followed Israel’s creation in 1948. Israeli police sent in reinforcements to prevent riots. The synagogue is in the Jewish Quarter, but Palestinians still saw the colorful celebration as an affront.
After a weekend of rare broadsides from top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, American demands became clear Monday. The U.S. wants Israel to cancel the construction plan, U.S. and Israeli officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement was made.
American officials said they were also insisting that Israel take significant steps to get peace talks back on track. These might include releasing Palestinian prisoners or turning over additional West Bank land to Palestinian control.
Washington, the officials added, also has demanded that Israel officially declare that talks with the Palestinians will deal with all the conflict’s big issues, including final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees who lost their homes during the war that followed Israel’s 1948 creation.
But Netanyahu appeared unreceptive to the main demand, defending four decades of construction for Israelis in east Jerusalem.
“The building of those Jewish neighbourhoods in no way hurt the Arabs of east Jerusalem and did not come at their expense,” he told his parliament on Monday.
Netanyahu has apologized for the timing of the project’s approval but has not said he will cancel it.
Palestinians say Jewish building in east Jerusalem, an area they hope to make their capital, eats up land they want for a future state, cuts off east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and prevents the expansion of Arab neighbourhoods. The Palestinians also point out that much of the land used for Jewish construction was expropriated from Arab owners.
Stephan Miller, a Jerusalem spokesman, said the city will not change its policies — meaning Jewish construction in the part of the city Palestinians claim will continue. “We are developing the entire city for the benefit of all residents,” he said.
Most Israelis accept the Jewish neighbourhoods in east Jerusalem as part of Israel, differentiating them from West Bank settlements, which many Israelis oppose. But since the world does not recognize Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem, the international legal status of the neighbourhoods is the same as the settlements, which are considered illegal.