US envoy defers visit to Israel as tensions rise
Published 17/03/2010 | 05:00
President Barack Obama's Middle East envoy postponed a visit to Jerusalem yesterday as the diplomatic dispute over Israeli plans to build more settler homes escalated.
George Mitchell had been due to meet President Shimon Peres this week, but the trip was put off in what was seen as a calculated snub designed to demonstrate continued American anger.
Washington also suspended top-level contact with Israel yesterday as it awaited a formal response to a list of demands set out by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after the row.
Relations between the two countries were badly damaged last week when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 Jewish homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo. It left Joe Biden, the US vice-president, humiliated as he had travelled to the region in the hope of announcing the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to make a formal response to Mrs Clinton's demands yesterday but it was unclear whether he had done so.
With the right wing of his ruling coalition unlikely to accept any suspension of settlement construction in East Jerusalem, there appeared to be little prospect of Mr Netanyahu backing down.
But senior US officials warned him he could not expect to bide his time in the hope that the row would blow over. "What happened to the vice-president in Israel was unprecedented," said one official. "Where it goes from here depends on the Israelis."
Mr Netanyahu came under pressure to yield from Mr Peres, in an unusual intervention yesterday. "We must make our supreme efforts not to stand alone," he said. "We cannot afford to unravel the delicate fabric of friendship with the United States."
Mr Netanyahu has already defied one of the conditions -- a reversal of the settlement construction decision -- by insisting on Israel's right to build in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the Six Day War of 1967 and later annexed.
Mrs Clinton had also demanded a pledge to negotiate on the borders of a Palestinian state and a substantial confidence-building gesture to the Palestinians. She said yesterday the US remained committed to reviving peace talks, saying there was "too much at stake" for Palestinians and Israelis to abandon them.
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian chief negotiator, said: "There is an explosive situation. There are Netanyahu's policies, which are tantamount to pouring oil on fire."
As the diplomatic wrangling intensified, violence erupted in East Jerusalem, where tensions have been high since the Ramat building announcement was made. As many as 100 people were wounded as stone-throwing Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli security forces. The smell of burning tyres and tear gas wafted across Jerusalem's eastern suburbs.
There was fighting too in Jerusalem's walled Old City, also captured in 1967, where the inauguration this week of a rebuilt 17th century synagogue has become a further grievance for some Palestinian groups.
Seizing on the issue, Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, declared yesterday a "day of rage" across the Palestinian territories. Thousands of people took to the streets of Gaza, chanting: "With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice for you, Jerusalem."
Mussa Abu Marzuk, the Hamas deputy politburo chief, called for another popular Palestinian uprising. (© Daily Telegraph, London)