Netanyahu hits defiant note ahead of visit with Obama

Two days before he meets President Obama in Washington, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet Sunday that 'building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv.'

Uriel Sinai/Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem, Sunday. Netanyahu said he had written to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making clear Israel would not curb Jewish housing construction in disputed areas in and around Jerusalem.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck a somewhat defiant tone on Sunday when he made clear on the eve of an important trip to visit President Obama in Washington that he would not distinguish between building in Jerusalem – a source of strife in the United States-Israel relationship over the past two weeks – and building in the Israeli metropolis of Tel Aviv.

"Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the last 42 years, and it has not changed. As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv," Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet at their weekly meeting Sunday.

Netanyahu was due to leave Israel Sunday night for Washington, where he will be the keynote speaker Monday at a conference put on by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). On Tuesday, he will meet with President Obama.

What has shifted since the height of the controversy, when the Israeli government announced March 9 that it was building new housing for Jews in East Jerusalem – a unexpected declaration made in the midst of a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden – is that Netanyahu says he has made a commitment to better coordination with the White House.

The announcement of the Jerusalem housing units, Netanyahu said, took even him by surprise. Nonetheless, he reiterated Sunday that he will not curtail controversial building projects in East Jerusalem, dispelling media expectation that he might announce a hold on the projects.

"I believed it would be of great importance for these things not to remain in the context of commentary or speculation. I subsequently wrote a letter, at my own initiative, to the secretary of state [Hillary Clinton] so that things would be crystal clear," Netanyahu also said in the meeting.

An official in Netanyahu's office said that, to prevent further crisis like the one the US and Israel just endured, there will be a "mechanism set in place that will prevent surprises."

Heated rhetoric cools

The heated tenor of the US-Israel relationship, which some have characterized as being at its most intense in two decades, seems to have cooled off somewhat in recent days.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday called her last talk with Netanyahu "useful and productive," a shift from the previous week's airing of frustrations.

Part of this appears to be due to Netanyahu's new willingness to discuss more substantive issues in proximity talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials which George Mitchell, the US Middle East peace envoy, has been trying to launch for several months

"At the beginning, when the Americans proposed proximity talks, we were saying there can't be a discussion of core issues in such talks," explains Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu. "Now, we've accepted that core issues can be discussed in proximity talks on a preliminary basis."

Proximity talks

Proximity talks, in which a negotiator shuttles between parties at separate but nearby locations, have been used with some success in trying to resolve international conflicts.

While Netanyahu hasn't exhibited any flexibility in yielding to the demands of the Palestinian leadership, the Obama administration, and others in the international community that Israel stop building in East Jerusalem – which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed – the Israeli premier has offered that he would make other "confidence-building measures," including easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, visiting the Gaza Strip on Sunday, condemned the "unacceptable, unsustainable conditions" in which Palestinian were living there.

Mr. Ban confirmed that the Israeli government had recently approved a UN request to continue its humanitarian projects in Gaza, but said the overall policy of blocking entrances to Gaza was counterproductive, preventing legitimate commerce and encouraging smuggling and extremism.

Violence continues

Although the diplomatic atmosphere between Jerusalem and Washington has begun to look less stormy than it did a week ago, tensions on the ground have not abated in equal measure.

Palestinian youths have continued to clash with Israeli soldiers in recent days, intifada-style.

In clashes over the weekend in the village near the West Bank city of Nablus, Israeli forces killed two Palestinian teenagers on Saturday.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says it tried to disperse a mob of stone throwers and that the soldiers used rubber bullets; Palestinians and human rights groups says live ammunition was used.

On Sunday, in the same area, two Palestinians were killed at a checkpoint.

The IDF said the two men tried to stab Israeli soldiers on duty with a pitchfork and a broken bottle.

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