Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a carefully worded Knesset speech Monday at a session with visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, seemed to yield no ground to American demands to freeze housing construction in east Jerusalem, though he did not explicitly say he would continue building there at this time.
“Over the past 40 years, there has not been a government in Israel that agreed to limit building in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said, ticking off the name of every prime minister since Golda Meir and making a clear reference to the furor over last week’s announced plans to build 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo, which has triggered harsh censure from the US.
Referring to all the new Jewish neighborhoods built beyond the 1967 borders in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said, “All of our governments built in Gilo, Ramot, Neveh Ya’acov, Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, Pisgat Ze’ev, Ramat Shlomo and elsewhere. Building these Jewish neighborhoods did not harm the Arabs of east Jerusalem in any way and were not built at their expense. Nearly half of the Jewish population in Jerusalem now lives in these neighborhoods. These places are not far away; they are a few minutes’ drive from here. They are less then 6 km. from the Knesset.”
Netanyahu said there was nearly complete agreement in the Knesset that these neighborhoods would remain part of Israel in any final-status peace deal.
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“We will continue to maintain Jerusalem as a united city that is open to all religions, in which Jews and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, live side by side in coexistence and enjoy freedom of religion and access to the holy places,” he said.
One diplomatic source said it was significant that Netanyahu, as the storm over last week’s announcement was still swirling and just prior to the arrival of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, had not pledged to continue building now in east Jerusalem.
He chose his words carefully and said what he wanted to say, the source said.
Netanyahu’s comments came amid fervent attempts to control the damage from the Ramat Shlomo incident, with US and Israeli officials talking to each other throughout the day about the issue.
Mitchell, who announced last week that he would be back this week to work out the framework for proximity talks, is scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Wednesday. The US is reportedly demanding that to get the Palestinians to agree to the talks, Israel must cancel the Ramat Shlomo project, make confidence-building gestures toward the Palestinians and agree to discuss issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem during the indirect talks.
In addition to Mitchell, Netanyahu will also meet on Wednesday with the EU’s new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who is on her first trip to the region in her present job. Following the US lead, Ashton is also expected to push Netanyahu hard to stop all construction in east Jerusalem.
In Cairo, on the first leg of her trip Monday, Ashton again criticized
the Ramat Shlomo announcement and said the EU wanted the Quartet
peacemakers – the EU, the US, the United Nations and Russia – to do
more to nudge Israel and the Palestinians toward peace.
The Quartet will be meeting in Moscow on Thursday.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, meanwhile, said Israel’s
actions in Jerusalem were “absurd, an evasion, maneuvering and an
attempt to suffocate the Palestinians.”
Aboul Gheit said Netanyahu had seemed to have a desire for peace when he visited Egypt in December.
“But the recent measures revealed that there is nothing new, only a
desire to waste time. This requires a stance from the international
community,” he said, following a meeting with Ashton. “Israel must know
there is a price to pay.”AP contributed to this report.