Israeli prime minister calls settlement dispute with U.S. regrettable, hurtful

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 14, 2010; 11:25 AM

JERUSALEM -- The spat between the United States and Israel over planned construction in an East Jerusalem neighborhood dominated the Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued to face criticism from coalition allies, opposition members and the press for what many say was his mismanagement of the issue during Vice President Biden's visit last week.

"I suggest that we not get carried away and that we calm down,'' Netanyahu told ministers at the start of the cabinet meeting.

"There was a regrettable incident that was done in all innocence and was hurtful and which certainly should not have occurred,'' Netanyahu said, referring to the timing of the announcement of approval of 1,600 new housing units for an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. It is located on territory Israel annexed and made part of Jerusalem after the 1967 Middle East war in a move rejected by the international community.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, in remarks in Tel Aviv on Sunday, said, "We have a prime minister who doesn't know what he wants and this weakness is leading us to a diplomatic collapse.''

The cabinet discussion followed another sharp rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday, who told Netanyahu by telephone that the U.S. considered the construction an insult and said it sent "a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president's trip,'' State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Clinton's comments triggered harsh criticism by some Israeli political figures, illustrating just how deeply the spat over the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood announcement had undercut Biden's main goal of assuring Israelis -- skeptical of President Obama's affection for the state -- of U.S. backing and friendship.

The Likud Party's Danny Dadon, deputy speaker of the Knesset, called Clinton's "meddling in internal Israeli decisions regarding the development'' of Jerusalem "uninvited and unhelpful. In fact it is sheer chutzpah.''

"I cannot remember another time that a senior American official deemed it 'insulting' when a sovereign nation announced urban zoning decisions regarding its primary city,'' Dadon said.

In the past, U.S. administrations have tended to more gently chide Israel on construction in Jerusalem that is over the "Green Line" boundary from the 1967 war, in areas where the Palestinians hope to build a capital as part of a future peace deal. More often, U.S. officials would call such construction "unhelpful,'' and note that the future of Jerusalem is an issue to be decided in final status negotiations between the parties.

Obama's chief political advisor, David Axelrod, continued the strong criticism Sunday morning, saying on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the Israeli action was an "affront" and an "insult."

What has perhaps been overlooked in the current brouhaha is that such construction is far from limited to Ramat Shlomo. According to Peace Now, an organization that tracks Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there are tens of thousands of housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem in various stages of planning.

Biden's sharp condemnation last week led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to say he won't return to negotiations unless the decision on Ramat Shlomo is reversed. U.S. envoy George Mitchell will have to sort out the mess when he returns to the region this week.

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