WASHINGTON (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was returning home Thursday having failed to resolve a bitter dispute with Washington over the construction of new Jewish settlements.
The Israeli leader was scheduled to leave the United States around 0400 GMT, bringing to an end a trip that served to illustrate the continued distance between Israel and Washington on Jewish settlement activity.
Despite multiple meetings with senior US officials, including an unexpected second round of talks with President Barack Obama at the White House, Netanyahu appeared unable to tamp down the row over the construction of 1,600 new settler homes in east Jerusalem.
Ahead of his scheduled departure, Netanyahu huddled in his Washington hotel with US envoy George Mitchell for a last round of talks.
But he cancelled planned interviews with reporters, Israeli media said, and he had none of the customary public appearances, even for photo ops, with US officials during his trip.
Obama asked Netanyahu during two high-stakes meetings late Tuesday to take specific “confidence-building” steps to boost indirect talks Washington is trying to arrange with the Palestinians.
“There are areas of agreement. There are areas of disagreement, and that conversation is ongoing,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained vague when asked about the commitments Mitchell was trying to obtain on the Arab-Israeli peace process.
“We are engaged in ongoing discussions and senator Mitchell is very actively part of that,” Clinton said. “Our goal is the resumption of negotiations, the launching of proximity talks as soon as possible.”
Gibbs said the discussions were “honest and straightforward,” a diplomatic euphemism hinting at tensions, after Netanyahu went into the talks having laid down a hard line on settlement construction in annexed east Jerusalem.
The White House had not even characterized the talks until Gibbs spoke, 15 hours after the Israeli prime minister left the presidential residence, and, unusually, did not release an official photo of the closed-door talks.
Netanyahu’s office however said the two rounds of talks between the key allies had unfolded in a “good atmosphere.”
The Israeli leader on Tuesday made clear that US demands for a settlement freeze could delay the resumption of Middle East peace talks for a year, a day after a fiery speech in which he said: “Jerusalem is not a settlement.”
“If the Americans support the unreasonable demands made by the Palestinians regarding a freeze on settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, the peace process risks being blocked for a year,” Netanyahu said.
“Relations between Israel and the United States should not be hostage to differences between the two countries over the peace process with the Palestinians,” he was quoted as saying by Israeli media.Chronology: US-Israeli relations since 1991
As the prime minister sparred with Washington, his government was also trying to douse a crisis with Britain, after the London government expelled an Israeli diplomat over a row over faked UK passports.
Britain said Tuesday there were compelling reasons to suggest Israel was behind the forgeries used by the team that killed Hamas commander Mahmud al-Mabhuh in Dubai in January.
A day after his meetings with Netanyahu, Obama discussed the latest tensions in the Middle East with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a secure video conference on Wednesday, the White House said.
The talks also focused on the next steps the international community could take on another key issue that concerns Israel: Iran. Washington is seeking a toughened range of sanctions over the Islamic Republic’s disputed nuclear program.
Netanyahu and others have warned that progress on containing Iran’s possible nuclear weapons program could be hampered by the row between Washington and Israel.
The spat erupted after Netanyahu’s government announced the new construction in east Jerusalem as US Vice President Joe Biden visited the region to boost peace talks.
The United States has warned such construction undermines its credibility as a mediator, and despite Netanyahu’s apology over the timing of the announcement the dispute has rumbled on for two weeks.
As Netanyahu met with Obama, it emerged Israeli officials had given final approval for 20 new settler units in east Jerusalem, a decision quickly condemned by the European Union.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also reiterated that the 20 planned apartments “are illegal under international law,” adding that all settlement activity “must stop.”