Israel ups stakes in row with US
Published 24/03/2010 | 05:00
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, raised the stakes before a meeting with an already infuriated President Barack Obama yesterday by declaring that a settlement freeze was "an illogical and unreasonable demand".
Mr Netanyahu was speaking on Capitol Hill in advance of visiting the White House for what American officials said would be "candid" talks after the recent Israeli decision to increase the size of settlements in disputed East Jerusalem.
"We must not be trapped by an illogical and unreasonable demand," Mr Netanyahu told congressional leaders. "It could put the peace negotiations on hold for another year."
Earlier, Mr Netanyahu had told a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital . . . everyone knows that these neighbourhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building in them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution."
Settlement building has threatened the resumption of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which have been suspended since December 2008.
The White House meeting was due to take place over dinner in a small side room off the Oval Office, behind closed doors, without the customary photo opportunity and questions from the press -- indication of the tense diplomatic stand-off between the two allies. Mr Netanyahu has already apologised for the timing -- not the substance -- of the announcement that 1,600 homes for settlers would be built in East Jerusalem. It came during a trip to Israel by Joe Biden, the US vice-president.
When asked if Mr Obama expected a further apology from Mr Netanyahu, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, responded tartly: "I have no doubt that that will be a topic in the meeting."
After a working dinner on Monday night between Mr Biden and Mr Netanyahu, the White House issued a short statement saying: "They had a productive, candid discussion on the full range of issues in the bilateral relationship, in preparation for the meeting later today between the president and the prime minister."
The term "candid" is diplomatic code for a serious disagreement.
On Capitol Hill, Mr Netanyahu was keen to shift the discussion away from settlements and on to Iran.
A congressional staffer said: "He knows that this is something that is going to move members of Congress, even if they are angry about the expansion of Jewish housing, that they are going to respond to Iran as a threat.
He connected Iran to just about every subject that was raised." (© Daily Telegraph, London)