US-Israel talks go into overtime to try to repair relations
WASHINGTON — The United States and Israel engaged in overtime talks yesterday trying to win agreement on gestures Israel can take to restore confidence among Palestinians and the Obama administration and salvaging a diplomatic visit marred by the worst US-Israeli breach in years.
US officials told the Associated Press that the closed-door talks were aimed at getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential session, said the administration’s special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met late yesterday afternoon with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who extended his stay by hours to work on a deal.
They hoped to come up with mutually acceptable ideas to improve an atmosphere poisoned by announcements of new Jewish housing projects on land claimed by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
Netanyahu twice pushed back his departure from Washington after talks with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to reach consensus on what Israel could do to repair damage caused by the housing announcements.
Another meeting with Obama was not expected, and it appeared unlikely that the two sides would reach an agreement before Netanyahu flew back to Israel.
American officials said Netanyahu, who had been due to leave after seeing Obama on Tuesday and then postponed his departure until yesterday morning and then again until late last night to see Mitchell, had stayed on to see whether a compromise could be reached.
During Netanyahu’s frosty visit, “the US made clear it is looking for steps to increase confidence and show commitment to the process,’’ said Mark Toner, the deputy State Department spokesman.
Earlier yesterday, the Obama administration challenged Israel to explain yet another announced plan to expand Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, the same issue that soured US-Israeli relations ahead of Netanyahu’s three-day visit to Washington this week.
Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, and the United States sees continued Israeli building there as a provocation that makes peace negotiations harder.
Netanyahu offered no concessions during his visit on an earlier plan to build 1,600 homes for Jews in the disputed part of the city. Netanyahu’s government has refused to back off steady expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in the majority-Arab city section.
An aide to Netanyahu said the prime minister was caught off guard by the announcement yesterday that the Jerusalem municipality has approved 20 new apartments for Jews.
Although Obama and Netanyahu met for a total of two hours, the White House did not issue a formal statement on what was discussed in either meeting.