Israel rejects US plea to halt settlement building

'Natural growth' will continue, says official

President Barack Obama last night stepped up the pressure on Israel by declaring that the Jewish state must "stop" its settlements, even after it had rejected a demand from Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, for a comprehensive settlements freeze.

Speaking after an Oval Office meeting with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama said Israel had an obligation of halting the settlement programme, which both he and Mr Abbas say is an essential pre-condition for a meaningful resumption of talks about a Middle East peace agreement.

But the already slim prospects of a breakthrough were dealt a severe new blow yesterday as Israel bluntly rejected the call, only hours before yesterday's White House meeting. Speaking in Jerusalem, Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman, said the internal or so-called "natural growth" of settlements would continue, and their fate would only be decided as part of the final negotiations for an overall peace agreement.

Israel's stance is fresh evidence of the tensions between the new administration in Washington and the government of the hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is not only reluctant to rein back settlements but who refused to endorse even the concept of a two-state solution that had been embraced by his most recent predecessors. Mr Obama nonetheless reiterated his belief that Israel would come to realise such an arrangement was in its national interest.

The Israeli reaction will also dampen hopes surrounding the major speech Mr Obama is due to deliver in Cairo next week to the Arab and Islamic world. Although White House officials say the address will not set out a detailed new blueprint for Middle East peace, it cannot but touch upon a conflict that has defied solution for more than 60 years.

The talks with Mr Abbas were the third key meeting between Mr Obama and regional leaders, after discussions here with King Abdullah of Jordan and Mr Netanyahu, and before meetings in the Middle East next week with the leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In its latest effort to break the Palestinian logjam, the Arab side is pressing a new version of the 2002 Saudi plan that offered normalised relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for the return of land seized in the 1967 war. Under this scenario, Syria, Lebanon and other countries would be participants in negotiations, alongside the Palestinians.

But even before the latest confrontation over settlements, the chances of progress on that front seemed slender, given Mr Netanyahu's unwillingness to cede territory, and his reluctance to sign on to a two-state solution.

Relations between Jerusalem and Washington are now edgier than at any time since 1991, when the first President Bush refused to grant housing loan guarantees to the then Israeli government of Yitzhak Shamir, in an earlier attempt to stop settlement building.

Ms Clinton's words on the subject could not have been more explicit. Mr Obama, she said after talks with her Egyptian counterpart, "wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions." The US had communicated its position "very clearly... and we intend to press that point."

This insistence by the US is a further sign of Mr Obama's broad sympathy for the cause represented by Mr Abbas. But the political realities here and in the Middle East are far less simple.

It is far from clear how far Congress, traditionally supportive of Israel, will go along with the tougher line from the White House. Meanwhile Mr Abbas remains in a very weak position, having lost control of Gaza to Hamas, which does not officially accept Israel's right to exist, and having failed to prevent Israel from tightening its security grip on the West Bank, of which he is in charge.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals