JERUSALEM – Israel will not restrict construction in East Jerusalem, Israel’s prime minister said Sunday hours before he left for Washington, despite a clear U.S. demand that building there must stop amid a crisis in relations between the two longtime allies.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday will be the first high-level meeting since the crisis erupted 10 days ago, when Israel embarrassed visiting Vice President Joe Biden by announcing a plan for construction in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, which is claimed by the Palestinians.
“As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv” and there would be no restrictions, Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
This tough stance on Jerusalem has run into stiff opposition in Washington, but there were signs that Israel was working to ease the crisis. Cabinet ministers said that while there would be no formal freeze, construction in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would be restricted, like Netanyahu’s partial 10-month West Bank construction freeze.
At stake are the first peace contacts between Israel and the Palestinian government in more than a year.
The Palestinians agreed to mediated talks, but the Jerusalem construction flap has given them second thoughts. Israel said it prefers direct negotiations but would go along with the indirect format.
Netanyahu has always opposed compromise over Jerusalem. Israel captured the city’s eastern sector from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it, a move not recognized by any other country. Over four decades, Israel has built a string of Jewish neighborhoods around the Arab section of the city.
Most Israelis consider them part of the Jewish state, but Palestinians equate them to West Bank settlements, considered illegal under international law.
Previous rounds of unsuccessful peace talks have included a formula for Israel retaining the Jewish neighborhoods while Palestinians got sovereignty over the Arab sections, but Netanyahu pointedly took that off the table when he took office a year ago.
In Gaza Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to end its blockade on Gaza, imposed after Palestinian militants captured an Israeli soldier in 2006 and tightened when the Islamic militant Hamas overran the territory the following year. Israel allows only basic humanitarian supplies into Gaza.