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Page last updated at 22:56 GMT, Monday, 15 March 2010

US presses Israel over East Jerusalem settlement row

Hillary Clinton (file image)
Hillary Clinton has called on Israel to show commitment to peace efforts

The US has said it is awaiting a "formal" response from Israel amid a row over its decision to build 1,600 new homes in occupied East Jerusalem.

Israel angered the US by announcing the move during a visit by Vice-President Joe Biden aimed at backing peace talks.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week asked Israel to show it was committed to Middle East peace efforts.

But PM Benjamin Netanyahu rejected any limits on Jewish building in Jerusalem and has yet to respond to US concerns.

Speaking to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, Mr Netanyahu said he wanted peace negotiations, and hoped the Palestinians would not present "new preconditions" for talks.

"No government in the past 40 years has limited construction in neighbourhoods of Jerusalem," he said.

"Building these Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem does not hurt the Arabs of East Jerusalem or come at their expense."

Palestinian leaders say indirect peace talks with Israel that US mediators had worked to set up are now "doubtful".

Mark Mardell
It seems the US wants to use this as an opportunity to test how serious the Israelis are about more talks
Mark Mardell
BBC North America editor

US state department spokesman Philip Crowley said the plans for US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who was due to fly to the region this week, were in flux.

He did not go into detail about the "specific concerns" Mrs Clinton had raised in a long phone call to Mr Netanyahu on Friday.

But he stressed that Israel was "a strategic ally of the US and will continue to be so".

Earlier on Monday, Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was quoted by Israeli media as saying ties between the two countries were at their lowest point for 35 years, since 1975.

He reportedly told a conference call with Israeli consuls general in the US at the weekend that "the crisis was very serious and we are facing a very difficult period in relations".

US-Israeli relations were strained in 1975 by a demand from then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin partially withdraw its troops from the Sinai Peninsula, where they had been since the 1967 Six-Day War.

Talks 'endangered'

The EU, as part of the Middle East Quartet, has already condemned Israel's decision to build new homes in East Jerusalem.

It is widely seen as a political impossibility for any Israeli prime minister publicly to announce a suspension of building in East Jerusalem
BBC's Heather Sharp in Jerusalem

Speaking to Arab League members in Cairo on Monday, EU foreign policy head Baroness Ashton said the move had "endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks".

She added: "The EU position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two state-solution impossible."

On Sunday, a top aide to US President Barack Obama said Israel's announcement of plans to build new homes in East Jerusalem during Mr Biden's visit was "destructive" to peace efforts and an "insult" to the US.

Just hours before the announcement, Mr Biden had emphasised how close relations were, saying there was "no space" between Israel and the US.

Under the Israeli plans, the new homes will be built in Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians are threatening to boycott newly agreed, indirect talks unless the Ramat Shlomo project is cancelled.

Close to 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

POINTS OF TENSION IN JERUSALEM
Map showing  west bank barrier route
1 Gilo: 850 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Nov 2009
2 Pisgat Zeev: 600 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Jan 2010
3 Sheikh Jarrah: Several Palestinian families evicted in past 18 months to make way for Jewish settlers after court ruled in ownership dispute
4 Ramat Shlomo: 1,600 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Mar 2010
5 Silwan: Demolition orders on 88 Palestinian homes built without difficult-to-get permits - Israel planning controversial renewal project
6. West Bank barrier: Making Palestinian movement between West Bank and Jerusalem harder - Israel says it's for security



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