Obama runs out of patience with Israel

Settlement issue provokes 'biggest crisis in relations for 35 years'

The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday strongly defended Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem in the face of US pressure and what one of his own top diplomats described as the worst crisis in relations with Washington for more than three decades.

A defiant Mr Netanyahu appeared to be digging in despite clear indications that the Obama administration is now demanding the scrapping of plans for 1,600 new Jewish homes, whose announcement overshadowed last week's visit to Israel by the US Vice-President Joe Biden. Mr Netanyahu's stance appeared to guarantee, after a highly charged week, the protraction of a stand-off in which a full-scale diplomatic row blew up at the start of Mr Biden's visit and appeared to abate at the end of it. But it was then reignited by demands from Hillary Clinton and an angry White House that Israel make amends for the "insulting" announcement just as indirect negotiations with the Palestinians had finally been arranged.

The US is now said to be demanding substantive concessions from Israel after a warning by the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he would not take part in talks if the plan to expand the mainly ultra-orthodox Ramat Shlomo settlement went ahead. The row has appeared finally to bring to a head the year-long tensions between the two governments since Barack Obama tried in vain to persuade the Israeli Prime Minister to agree to a total settlement freeze. He was thwarted by Mr Netanyahu who agreed only to a partial 10-month freeze, which did not include East Jerusalem.

The Israeli Prime Minister insisted yesterday that construction would continue "in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years". He added: "The building of those Jewish neighbourhoods in no way hurt the Arabs of East Jerusalem and did not come at their expense."

But a prominent Fatah figure and former Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, told The Independent that the prospect of talks resuming had been sabotaged by Israel's action. Speaking in Qatar yesterday ahead of reconciliation talks with Hamas, which governs Gaza, he added: "The speed at which Jerusalem is being Judaised and de-Arabised has surpassed any period in the history of the peace process and is so alarming that we cannot possibly continue giving cover to Mr Netanyahu that we are still negotiating while he is doing this."

Mr Netanyahu avoided direct reference to the plans at the heart of the row for expanding the Ramat Shlomo settlement. But the Prime Minister, who has apologised for the timing of last week's announcement, showed no sign of abandoning it altogether.

There was no official confirmation of reports in the Israeli press that the US was also demanding other measures, including an early release of Palestinian prisoners and a clear Israeli promise that talks, if and when they begin, would genuinely deal with the core issues between the two sides: borders, Palestinian refugees, and the future of Jerusalem. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz and Israeli Army Radio reported meanwhile that in a conference call with Israeli consuls across the US on Saturday night, Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to Washington, said that the crisis was one of "historic proportions". Summoned to the State Department on Friday, he reportedly urged the consuls, on instructions "from the highest level", to lobby Congress, Jewish community groups and the media to make Israel's case. Mr Oren, a historian, apparently recalled a previous stand-off in 1975 between Henry Kissinger and the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin over US demands in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war for a partial withdrawal from the Sinai.

One explanation canvassed in Israel for Washington's tough stance is that pressure is being exerted by the US military for early progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as means of reducing Muslim hostility to the US. During the height of the row last week, Mr Biden was reported by Yedhiot Ahronot to have told Mr Netanyahu: "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."

Asked on Sunday whether Israeli "intransigence" was putting US "troops' lives at risk", David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Mr Obama, said "that region and that issue is a flare point throughout the region so I'm not going to put it in those terms". But he then added that it "was absolutely imperative" not only for "the security of Israel and the Palestinian people2 but "for our own security that ... we resolve this very difficult issue".

Mr Netanyahu can at least expect a warm reception in Washington when next week he addresses the annual conference of AIPAC, the staunchly right-of-centre pro-Israel lobby group which is trying to mobilise opposition to the stance taken by Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama.

Jerusalem remained tense yesterday, with hundreds of police deployed around the Old City for a fourth day in case of Palestinian unrest, including a possible protest against the rededication of a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter destroyed in the 1948 war. A closure of the West Bank to prevent most Palestinians reaching the city was also still in force.

Dozens of young men burned tyres and threw stones at Israeli forces at the Qalandiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem. Palestinian medics said one Palestinian youth was shot in the jaw and another in the chest as troops dispersed protesters.

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