Obama-Netanyahu talks leave settlement dispute simmering

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WASHINGTON: Talks between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to produce signs that they had ended a dispute which Netanyahu said could block the Middle East peace process for a year.

Sticking to a hardline position before the White House talks late Tuesday, Netanyahu said peace efforts would be held up by what he called unreasonable demands for a freeze on new settlers homes in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

While Netanyahu s office said the two rounds of talks between the key allies had unfolded in a good atmosphere , the leaders unusually did not appear before the cameras. The White House stayed silent about the meetings.

The US president initially hosted Netanyahu at the White House for 90 minutes. Netanyahu then huddled privately with his staff for more than an hour, after which he met a second time with the president in the Oval Office for a further 35 minutes, officials said.

Netanyahu s office said in a statement that advisors to both men were holding follow-up discussions that would continue on Wednesday.

But it gave no details, and White House officials refused to describe the tone or the substance of the talks – or to say if any agreements had been proposed or reached.

Earlier, Netanyahu maintained a firm line on US demands for a freeze in settlement construction, warning that a halt to new settlements in east Jerusalem could wind up putting Israel-Palestinian talks on ice.

If the Americans support the unreasonable demands made by the Palestinians regarding a freeze on settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, the peace process risks being blocked for a year, Netanyahu said.

Relations between Israel and the United States should not be hostage to differences between the two countries over the peace process with the Palestinians, he was quoted as saying by Israeli media.

Netanyahu was in Washington as the United States is seeking more UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, with Israel concerned that efforts to that end are moving too slowly.

His trip also coincided with Britain ordering the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat over the intolerable use of fake British passports in the killing of a Hamas operative in Dubai two months ago.

In his speech to the powerful US-Israel lobby AIPAC in Washington, Nethanyahu stressed that Jerusalem is not a settlement – spelling out an apparent message of no compromise towards Obama.

The United States has warned that more Jewish settler homes in east Jerusalem would directly undermine both US credibility as a mediator and efforts to get proximity talks started between Israel and the Palestinians.

Washington reacted angrily when – during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden – Netanyahu s government announced the construction of 1,600 settler homes in the eastern part of the city.

Despite Netanyahu s subsequent apology over the timing of the announcement, the row has rumbled on for two weeks, with neither side backing down.

Even as Tuesday s White House meeting went ahead, it emerged in Israel that local officials had given final approval for the building of 20 apartments for Jewish settlers at the site of a former Palestinian hotel in east Jerusalem.

Netanyahu says he is simply following the policies of all Israeli governments since the 1967 war, when Israel seized and later annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized by any major world power.

Israel claims all Jerusalem as its eternal capital, while the Palestinians want to make the predominantly Arab eastern sector the home of an independent Palestinian state.

Deepening the sense of crisis, the Palestinians on Tuesday warned that Netanyahu s position threatens to destroy hopes for serious peace talks.

What Netanyahu said does not help American efforts and will not serve the efforts of the American administration to return the two sides to indirect negotiations, Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said.

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