US and Israel remain at odds after talks

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The US and Israel remained at odds on Wednesday after a meeting between Barack Obama, president, and Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, failed to reconcile the two sides over future settlement policy and the prospects for peace.

Officials from both countries said efforts to bridge the gap were continuing, with George Mitchell, Mr Obama’s special envoy, meeting Mr Netanyahu in Washington on Wednesday ahead of a trip to the Middle East in a few weeks.

Diplomats added that Mr Netanyahu had so far not fully met Mr Obama’s demands.

These were an elaboration on earlier calls by Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, for Israel to desist from new settlements in East Jerusalem, make clear its readiness to negotiate “core issues” with the Palestinians and take “concrete” steps to improve the prospects for peace.

Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, said that at their meeting on Tuesday night, Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu had “an honest and straightforward discussion about our relationship, about regional security and about comprehensive peace efforts”.

“The president asked the prime minister to take steps to build confidence for [indirect] proximity talks [with the Palestinians] so that progress can be made towards comprehensive Middle East peace,” he said.

“There are areas of agreement, there are areas of disagreement, and that
conversation is ongoing.”

The contrast was clear between Mr Netanyahu’s reception at the White House and elsewhere in Washington, notably at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – where he was given a hero’s welcome by 7,500 people – and on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties gave him a warm greeting.

In an unusual arrangement for a visit by an Israeli head of government, no journalists were allowed access to Mr Netanyahu’s meeting with Mr Obama, which lasted 90 minutes before the Israeli prime minister broke for a meeting with his staff. A subsequent half-hour meeting with Mr Obama took place at Mr Netanyahu’s request but yielded no clear result.

In a potential further irritant between the two countries, Israeli media reported on Wednesday that the Jerusalem municipality had given final approval to a controversial new settlement project in occupied East Jerusalem.

Israeli officials denied the reports, arguing that the project was not new and that planning permission was in fact granted last July. However, according to a statement from the municipality, the settlers paid the required administrative fee only this month, removing the final obstacle before building can start.

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