WASHINGTON – Israel and the United States on Thursday backed away from a week-old confrontation over Israel’s plans to build 1,600 new apartments for Jewish residents in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from the Arabs in 1967.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a phone call with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, offered to take some steps to help restart peace talks, and Clinton directed U.S. special envoy George Mitchell to travel to the region this weekend after suspending his mediation several days ago.
The easing of tensions came days before Netanyahu is to arrive in Washington to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby. A pall descended over U.S.-Israeli ties after Netanyahu’s interior minister announced the new construction, which the Obama administration opposes, after Vice President Joe Biden began a visit to Israel last week.
U.S. and Israeli officials wouldn’t spell out what steps Netanyahu agreed to take, and it wasn’t clear whether they’ll be sufficient to bring Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table.
There was no sign that Netanyahu would cancel the plan to build the apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its undivided capital.
Israel could delay the start of construction, but in the past it’s always pressed forward with such expansions.
With President Barack Obama postponing his Asia trip to focus on health care legislation, he and Netanyahu will be in Washington early next week. White House officials said there was no decision whether the two leaders will meet.
Israeli news reports said that Netanyahu told Clinton that Israel is willing to release Palestinian prisoners, remove checkpoints on the West Bank and perhaps even transfer some lands to Palestinian control to facilitate peace talks.
Clinton and Mitchell will now have to convince Palestinian leaders, whose position was undermined by the March 9 East Jerusalem announcement, that they should begin indirect talks with Israel.
“What we’re focused on is getting back to where we were a little over a week ago,” when the Israeli-Palestinian “proximity” talks were announced, said a senior U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, in a statement from Moscow, where Clinton was traveling, said that she and Netanyahu “discussed the specific actions that might be taken to improve the atmosphere for progress toward peace.”