Netanyahu rejects U.S. demands to freeze Jerusalem construction

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L), President Shimon Peres (4th L), Defence Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi (5th L) and Defence Minister Ehud Barak (2nd R) sit for a photo during a ceremony for Israel’s 62nd Independence Day in Jerusalem April 20, 2010.

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(HAARETZ)  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the Obama administration’s demands to freeze construction in East Jerusalem, his bureau confirmed on Thursday.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau was responding to a Wall Street Journal report that Netanyahu’s government had delivered over the weekend its most substantive response yet to that U.S. request.

According to the report, Netanyahu did agree to a number of peace-building measures demanded by the Obama administration, including the release of some Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel, an ease on Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and efforts toward improving Palestinian movement in the West Bank.

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The Netanyahu government also expressed willingness to discuss final borders and the future of Jerusalem in the next round of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, according to the report.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Netanyahu position very
unfortunate and said he hoped the U.S. would be able to convince the Israeli government to give peace a chance by halting settlement construction in East Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Israel, U.S. secretly working to bridge gaps in peace process

Israel and the United States have been conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations in recent days in an effort to find a formula that would bridge their differences over peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and America’s demand that Israel halt construction in East Jerusalem for at least four months.

According to a senior Obama administration official, the top Middle East policy specialist at the White House, Dan Shapiro, arrived in Israel Wednesday on a secret visit. Shapiro’s delegation also included David Hale, who serves as deputy to U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell and is permanently based in Israel.

Shapiro and Hale held lengthy talks Wednesday at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem with the prime minister’s envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, and Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer. The talks will continue on Thursday.

Neither the White House nor the Prime Minister’s Office have officially announced the talks or even Shapiro’s arrival in Israel. Officially, total silence is being maintained, and the Prime Minister’s Office therefore refused to comment Wednesday.

But a senior Israeli official said talks with American officials have been conducted throughout the past week – by phone, via the Israeli embassy in Washington and with the White House officials who arrived in Israel on Wednesday.

The Israeli source said Israel would not provide an official response to the American demands in the form of a position paper or even a verbal response, but the parties would try to reach an understanding on a joint approach for furthering the peace process.

This will be a lengthy process, the official added, and there will be no single “event” at which Israel will present its response.

Currently, the Israeli official said, Netanyahu’s position is that Israel will not accede to Washington’s demand that it suspend construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. However, diplomatic sources predicted that Netanyahu would agree to promise to avoid provocative steps such as constructing houses for Jews in Arab neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city.

The dialogue between Israel and the Obama administration is to continue next week, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak visits Washington. Barak, who will leave for the U.S. on Sunday, is slated to deliver a speech at a conference sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, at which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will also speak.

He will also hold meetings with U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, Clinton and other senior officials. The talks will deal with the peace process and the effort to bridge the disagreements between the U.S. and Israel, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue and weapons smuggling from Syria to Lebanon.

When Netanyahu visited Washington several weeks ago, U.S. President Barack Obama gave him a list of demands during their White House meeting. One of the demands was a construction freeze in East Jerusalem. Obama also demanded that Netanyahu make other confidence-building gestures to the Palestinians, such as allowing the opening of PA institutions in the eastern part of the city, transferring additional West Bank territory to Palestinian security control and agreeing to discuss all the core issues of the conflict during proximity talks with the PA, instead of insisting that these issues only be discussed in direct talks.

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