US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has promised the Palestinians that Israel will not construct new homes in east Jerusalem during peace negotiations, the London-based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported Saturday.
According to the paper, Mitchell told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the phone that Washington would provide the PA with guarantees that Israel would halt construction in the east of the city.
On Tuesday it was announced that 1,600 new apartments would be constructed in the east Jerusalem Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The announcement came during the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden and embarrassed Washinton, leading to harsh condemnations from Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and to Palestinians threatening to cancel planned indirect talks with Israel. Israeli government officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have apologized for the timing of the announcement, although not for the building permits themselves.
The Arab report stated that Mitchell’s promise of guarantees was given after the Palestinians refused to accept Netanyahu’s apology as a signal that construction would not move forward.
Clinton sharply admonished Netanyahu over the Interior Ministry’s approval of the new building in east Jerusalem in a phone conversation Friday.
Her call came hours ahead of a condemnation of the housing plan issued by the Quartet
of the US, UN, EU and Russia.
“The Quartet has agreed to closely monitor developments in Jerusalem and to keep under consideration additional steps that may be required to address the situation on the ground,” read its statement, which also called for the resumption of peace talks. The Quartet said it would “take full stock” of the situation at its meeting in Moscow on March 19.
In her call to Netanyahu, Clinton labeled the east Jerusalem announcement “a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship,” one that went against the spirit of Biden’s trip to Israel this past week and “undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America's interests,” according to State Department spokesman PJ Crowley.
He said that Clinton also stressed that “the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”
Biden wrapped up a four-day visit to Israel Thursday in which he repeatedly stressed the strength of the alliance and the US commitment to Israel’s security. When news broke Tuesday about the plans for building in Ramat Shlomo, he drafted a response in consultation with US President Barack Obama using the harshest diplomatic language to condemn the move.Related articles:
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The Palestinians, outraged by the new housing plans, have threatened to
pull out of upcoming indirect talks with Israel if they aren’t shelved.
A State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity wouldn’t
specify whether the US was looking for Israel to accede to the
Palestinian demand when it came to the Ramat Shlomo project, but said,
“We’d like to see the Israeli government take specific steps to build
The Arab League, in a special meeting Wednesday, withdrew its support
for indirect talks which it had endorsed just one week earlier. US
Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and Middle
East Envoy George Mitchell have been working the phones to keep Arab
leaders on board.
They spoke to the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the
UAE, as well as to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as part of their outreach.
“We’ve been dealing with some obstacles this week, but we’re working
with both sides to overcome those obstacles and keep the proximity
talks moving forward,” the State Department official said. “We’re still
moving forward with our plans.”
Crowley noted on Thursday that the US had not received any official
word from the Palestinians that they were pulling out of the talks,
despite media speculation, and that Mitchell was still planning on
heading back to the region next week.
Also Friday, the State Department announced it was increasing
assistance to Palestinians via the United Nations Relief and Works
Agency by $55 million, bringing the total US expenditure for 2010 to
During Clinton’s nearly 45-minute call with Netanyahu about the housing
plan’s approval, she also told the prime minister “she couldn’t
understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United
States' strong commitment to Israel's security,” according to Crowley.
Netanyahu has insisted he was blindsided by the Interior Ministry
committee vote and apologized for its timing, but he hasn’t walked away
from the building program itself.
Asked whether the secretary’s comment indicated the Americans didn’t
believe Netanyahu’s explanation, Crowley said that “we accept what
Prime Minister Netanyahu has said.”
But he added, “By the same token, he is the head of the Israeli
government and ultimately is responsible for the actions of that
The length and unusually blunt tone of Clinton's call underscored the
administration's concern about prospects for the negotiations it has
been trying to organize for more than a year and its anger over
Israel's refusal to heed U.S. appeals not to make provocative gestures.
"The announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vice
president was there was insulting," Clinton said in an interview with
CNN Friday. "It was just really a very unfortunate and difficult moment
for everyone, the U.S., our vice president who had gone to reassert
America's strong support for Israeli security, and I regret deeply that
that occurred and made that view known."
Earlier Friday, an Israeli cabinet minister said the government is moving to amend the country's planning procedures on sensitive political decisions because of the embarrassing diplomatic flap. Netanyahu has said he was not aware the announcement was going to be made during Biden's visit.
Meanwhile on Friday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he and Tunisia's leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, have begun to discuss how the Arab League should respond to an Israeli plan for new construction in Ramat Shlomo.
Speaking during a visit to Tunisia, Abbas said Israel's move "got in the way of" plans to begin US-mediated indirect talks with Israel.
On Thursday, senior Israeli officials assessed that proximity talks with the Palestinians would begin soon. Their words came hours after US Vice President Joe Biden left Israel for Jordan.
According to the officials, Biden – in his speech at Tel Aviv
University on Thursday – made it obvious that despite the row over the
construction plans in northeast Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood,
the US was interested in “putting everything back on the rails.”
Biden told Al-Jazeera in an interview taped in Bethlehem on Wednesday that he
expected that direct negotiations dealing with all the core issues
would begin in about four months