Defiant Israel strengthens opposition to US demands
'If we blink now, we will lose everything, and when that happens the government will collapse'
The Israeli prime minister convened an emergency session of his cabinet last night amid signs that the Jewish state was strengthening its defiance of the United States.
Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers discussed a series of demands made by President Barack Obama to end a damaging dispute over Jewish buildings in east Jerusalem.
There was no word on what response the inner cabinet would formulate, but there were signs that relations between the US and Israel, already at their most strained in many years, were deteriorating ever more rapidly.
Far from signalling their willingness to accommodate Mr Obama's concerns, senior members of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition indicated their determination to press ahead with settlement construction in parts of Jerusalem that Israel annexed after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Ahead of the cabinet meeting, Eli Yishai, Israel's interior minister, said: "I thank God that I have been given the opportunity to be the minister who approves the construction of thousands of housing units in Jerusalem."
Mr Netanyahu was subjected to a humiliating dressing-down at the White House on Tuesday during which Mr Obama reportedly presented him with a list of 13 demands the US wanted fulfilled in order to end the crisis.
As he flew back to Israel yesterday, Mr Netanyahu tried to sound upbeat.
"I think we have found the golden path between Israel's traditional policies and our desire to move forward to peace," he told reporters.
However, White House officials acknowledged continuing "disagreements" between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu.
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, admitted that the prime minister had failed "to reach an understanding with the United States".
Mr Netanyahu's ministers urged him to stand firm by rejecting US calls to reverse the construction of 1,600 homes in east Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo settlement, the announcement of which triggered the dispute.
Silvan Shalom, one of Israel's deputy prime ministers, said: "If we blink now, we will lose everything, and when that happens the government will collapse."
Were Mr Netanyahu to agree to halt the construction in east Jerusalem, seen by Palestinians as their future capital, there is a risk that at least one of the more radical parties in his right-wing coalition could withdraw.
While aware of such a possibility, Mr Obama is understood to have told the prime minister that he can either choose to ingratiate himself with his coalition partners or commit to serious peace talks by accepting his demands.
The Palestinian leadership has indicated its unwillingness to join indirect peace talks unless settlement construction on the West Bank and in Jerusalem is fully frozen.
This is a step it says Israel is obliged to take under commitments made during previous negotiations.
The centrist Israeli Kadima party, which won the most seats in last year's general election, offered yesterday to join the ruling coalition should one of its pro-settlement rivals pull out.
But Mr Netanyahu has shown no inclination to modify his government and many members of his Likud party will bitterly oppose bringing Kadima into the coalition.