'Mitchell guaranteed e. J'lem freeze'

Clinton calls PM, slams construction plan; Quartet condemns Israel's action.

Mitchell Netanyahu 311 (photo credit: GPO)
Mitchell Netanyahu 311
(photo credit: GPO)
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.
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The Palestinians, outraged by the new housing plans, have threatened topull out of upcoming indirect talks with Israel if they aren’t shelved.
A State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity wouldn’tspecify whether the US was looking for Israel to accede to thePalestinian demand when it came to the Ramat Shlomo project, but said,“We’d like to see the Israeli government take specific steps to buildconfidence.”
The Arab League, in a special meeting Wednesday, withdrew its supportfor indirect talks which it had endorsed just one week earlier. USAssistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and MiddleEast Envoy George Mitchell have been working the phones to keep Arableaders on board.
They spoke to the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and theUAE, as well as to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa andPalestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as part of their outreach.
“We’ve been dealing with some obstacles this week, but we’re workingwith both sides to overcome those obstacles and keep the proximitytalks moving forward,” the State Department official said. “We’re stillmoving forward with our plans.”
Crowley noted on Thursday that the US had not received any officialword from the Palestinians that they were pulling out of the talks,despite media speculation, and that Mitchell was still planning onheading back to the region next week.
Also Friday, the State Department announced it was increasingassistance to Palestinians via the United Nations Relief and WorksAgency by $55 million, bringing the total US expenditure for 2010 to$95 million.
During Clinton’s nearly 45-minute call with Netanyahu about the housingplan’s approval, she also told the prime minister “she couldn’tunderstand how this happened, particularly in light of the UnitedStates' strong commitment to Israel's security,” according to Crowley.
Netanyahu has insisted he was blindsided by the Interior Ministrycommittee vote and apologized for its timing, but he hasn’t walked awayfrom the building program itself.
Asked whether the secretary’s comment indicated the Americans didn’tbelieve Netanyahu’s explanation, Crowley said that “we accept whatPrime Minister Netanyahu has said.”
But he added, “By the same token, he is the head of the Israeligovernment and ultimately is responsible for the actions of thatgovernment.”
The length and unusually blunt tone of Clinton's call underscored theadministration's concern about prospects for the negotiations it hasbeen trying to organize for more than a year and its anger overIsrael's refusal to heed U.S. appeals not to make provocative gestures.
"The announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vicepresident was there was insulting," Clinton said in an interview withCNN Friday. "It was just really a very unfortunate and difficult momentfor everyone, the U.S., our vice president who had gone to reassertAmerica's strong support for Israeli security, and I regret deeply thatthat 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 AvivUniversity on Thursday – made it obvious that despite the row over theconstruction 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 heexpected that direct negotiations dealing with all the core issueswould begin in about four months.