The Jerusalem municipality has approved 20 new apartments for Jews in east Jerusalem, the city said yesterday, in a move that could stir a new diplomatic crisis with the US just as Israel’s leader is in Washington on a fence-mending visit.
The US views Israeli building in east Jerusalem, the part of the city claimed by Palestinians as their future capital, as disruptive to Middle East peacemaking efforts. Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, insists the city cannot be divided and says it has the right to build anywhere.
In Washington this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a pro-Israel audience that Israel was determined to keep building in all of Jerusalem — a statement quickly rejected by the White House.
Netanyahu met twice with US President Barack Obama on Tuesday in an attempt to defuse what has become the countries’ worst spat in decades, but yesterday’s announcement by Jerusalem city officials threatened to derail any progress.
Obama initially hosted Netanyahu at the White House late on Tuesday for 90 minutes, but the leaders unusually did not appear before the cameras.
Netanyahu then huddled privately with his staff for more than an hour, after which he met a second time with the president in the Oval Office for 35 minutes.
The Israeli prime minister’s office later issued a statement to say the talks had unfolded in a “good atmosphere,” but it gave no details and White House officials refused to describe the tone or the substance of the talks — or to say if any agreements had been proposed or reached.
The Palestinians warned that Netanyahu’s position threatens to destroy hopes for serious peace talks.
“What Netanyahu said does not help American efforts and will not serve the efforts of the American administration to return the two sides to indirect negotiations,” Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.
The new project calls for tearing down part of an old hotel, the Shepherd, and building 20 apartments and a parking lot instead.
Word of the approval was leaked to an Israeli Web site minutes before Netanyahu met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday.
Netanyahu, who has demanded that he be personally informed about any east Jerusalem construction projects before they are approved, was caught off guard by the announcement, said a top aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was unclear whether the issue came up in the White House meetings.
The Jerusalem municipality said the final go ahead was given a week ago after a lengthy bureaucratic process.
City spokesman Gidi Schmerling said plans for the project had been known since last July and that last week’s approval was merely a procedural step. He said media reports were blowing the matter out of proportion, saying they were “meant to create a provocation during the prime minister’s visit in the US.”
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