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'US knew about settlements'

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said yesterday that he had told Washington in writing just before heading for talks with the US President, Barack Obama, that he would not stop Jewish settlement around Jerusalem.

The settlement issue, accompanied by mounting violence in the occupied West Bank, is challenging renewed efforts by the American special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, to get peace talks under way.

"Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments for the 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 yesterday.

"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 so that things would be crystal clear."

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Mr Netanyahu spoke by telephone on Thursday in an attempt to defuse a vocal US-Israeli dispute over settlement in areas around East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967.

Israel's announcement – during a visit by the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, two weeks ago – that it would build 1,600 homes for Jews near East Jerusalem embarrassed Washington and stymied indirect peace talks with the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu was flying to Washington yesterday after meeting Mr Mitchell. An aide said he is to meet Mr Obama tomorrow.