Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has met president Obama for the first time since relations were soured by the announcement that 1,600 settler homes were to be built in occupied East Jerusalem. Both men talked for 90 minutes on Tuesday, but the meeting at the White House was overshadowed by the news that more building permits had been issued for the disputed city.
Hours before the meeting took place, the Jerusalem municipality said on its website that final permission had been granted for the construction of 20 housing units, shops and a carpark at the Shepherd hotel compound in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu's office said the prime minister heard about the media reports of the project's approval half an hour before visiting the white House and did not know about it beforehand.
The Jerusalem municipality said that approving the project was not meant to interfere with Netanyahu's visit and was just an automatic outcome of the burocratic process. 'Once the construction permits have been paid for they are automatically issued,' the city's spokesman said on Israeli public radio. However, when the project was approved in July, Washington demanded it be halted and summoned Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US, to be reprimanded.
Underlining the tensions between the two allies, the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama was unusually low-key. The media were prevented from taking pictures and there was no news conference held afterwards.
PJ Crowley, the US state department spokesman, told The Associated Press news agency that the US and Israel were engaged in 'give and take' after Washington was angered by the settlement announcment made during a visit by Joe Biden, the US vice-president. 'We are not going to talk about the precise steps both sides have to take. We will continue to discuss those steps privately,' he said.
Nir Chefetz, Netanyahu's spokesman, said that the 'atmosphere was good' at the meeting. He said the two leaders' advisers 'continued discussions on the ideas raised at the meeting' and would hold further talks on Wednesday.
Netanyahu has shown little sign of giving in to US pressure over the settlement issue during his three-day visit.
Earler om Tuesday he said to the Israeli media that 'if the Americans support the unreasonable demands made by the Palestinians regarding a freeze on settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, the peace process risks being blocked for a year' Also he said that 'relations between Israel and the United States should not be hostage to differences between the two countries over the peace process with the Palestinians'.
Those remarks came after a defiant speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) on Monday in which he said that 'Jerusalem is not a settlement'.
Before meeting Obama, Netanyahu received a warm bipartisan welcome at congress. Also there Netanyahu told the legislators that he feared peace talks with Palestinians may be delayed for another year unless Palestinians dropped their demand for a full freeze on Jewish settlement building.'We must not be trapped by an illogical and unreasonable demand,' Netanyahu said during a meeting with congressional leaders, according to his spokesman.
But Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, told the Reuters news agency: 'Netanyahu's policy is the one that is obstructing the return to negotiations.' We are ready to go back to negotiations if Netanyahu adheres to what came in the statement of the Quartet,' he said. At a meeting in Moscow on Friday, the Quartet of Middle East mediators comprising the UN, the US, the EU and Russia, called on Israel to freeze settlement activity.
The paper Haaretz, in the meantime, wrote about two opinion polls which show that almost half of the Israeli public is in favour of freezing the building programs in Jerusalem. Former politican Yehuda ben Meir of the National Religious Party seemed alarmed by the findings. 'Two surveys published in recent days produced astonishing findings about the public's attitude on construction in Jerusalem,' he wrote, 'findings that should alarm every Jew. In a Haaretz-Dialog poll, 48 percent of the respondents said Israel should continue building in all parts of Jerusalem, even if the price is a rift with the United States, while 41 percent said Israel should stop building in East Jerusalem until the end of negotiations with the Palestinians. Almost identical findings came up in a Mina Tzemach poll, where 46 percent said building in East Jerusalem should be frozen and only 51 percent opposed such a move.'