Netanyahu heads to US as settlement row rumbles on

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is expected to meet top US administration figures in Washington next week after sharp international condemnation yesterday of his government's most recent plans to expand a Jewish settlement.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said Mr Netanyahu had offered the US "useful and productive" proposals to defuse one of the most serious diplomatic rows between the two countries in decades.

But there was no sign yet that these went far enough to meet Washington's demands for measures to repair the damage caused by last week's announcement by Israel that it intends building another 1,600 homes in the ultra-orthdox Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.

The announcement last week prompted the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to say he would not take part in freshly arranged indirect "proximity" negotiations with Israel. Mrs Clinton is expected to meet Mr Netanyahu when he goes to Washington on Monday for the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

"We all condemned the announcement, and we all are expecting both parties to move toward the proximity talks and to help create an atmosphere in which those talks can be constructive," she said after a Moscow meeting of the US-EU-UN-Russia Quartet on the Middle East.

The US presidential envoy, George Mitchell, will hold talks with the Israeli Prime Minister here tomorrow about the US demands but a senior Israeli official said he could not confirm a Fox News report that Barack Obama had scheduled a meeting with Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday.

The Quartet also provoked a dismissive rebuttal from Israel's right wing Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, by urging talks designed to lead to a Palestinian state within two years. While reiterating calls for a full settlement freeze, it applauded the determination of Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, to complete the internal preparations of a state within that period.

Mr Lieberman, who has said in the past that he cannot foresee a peace deal with the Palestinians over the next 15 years, said in Brussels: "The Quartet is ignoring the last 16 years of Israeli attempts, and is giving the Palestinians the impression that they can achieve their demands by continuing to refuse direct negotiations under false pretexts."

The US is widely believed to have demanded last week that Israel rescinds the Ramat Shlomo plan, enacts confidence-building measures ahead of the talks, and promises that the talks will discuss "core" issues between the two sides, said to be borders, refugees and the future of Jerusalem.

A statement by Mr Netanyhau's office said that there was "a real effort by Israel to aid the US administration in renewing negotiations though trust-building measures with the Palestinian Authority".

Israel launched six air strikes – one reportedly wounding two Palestinians near the Egyptian border – in Gaza after the killing of a Thai worker by a Qassam rocket on Thursday.