Glenn Kessler
The Washington Post
March 16, 2010 - 12:00am

In an effort to get peace talks back on track, the Obama administration is pressing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to reverse last week's approval of 1,600 housing units in a disputed area of Jerusalem, make a substantial gesture toward the Palestinians, and publicly declare that all of the "core issues" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, be included in upcoming talks, U.S. officials said.

The three demands, relayed on Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a tense phone call with Netanyahu, have not been publicly disclosed by the administration. But Israel is expected to provide a formal response on Tuesday. U.S. officials are casting it as a test of Netanyahu's commitment to the relationship between the United States and Israel.

"We have to have guarantees that these kinds of things will not happen again," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "If he is unwilling to make that kind of commitment, it raises the questions of how committed he is to negotiations -- and it raises the question of how committed he is to the relationship between Israel and the United States."

The official said that the Obama administration views the success of the Middle East peace talks as central to the national security interests of the United States and that any failure by Netanyahu to fully embrace the talks would be viewed negatively. "He says he is serious about engaging in peace talks," the official said. "We are putting that to the test."

The administration's unusually blunt criticism of the longtime U.S. ally -- prompted by the housing announcement during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel -- has alarmed pro-Israel groups and led to criticism from some U.S. lawmakers. The administration's special peace envoy, former senator George J. Mitchell, was due to arrive in Israel early this week to launch indirect talks between the two sides, but the trip is on hold pending the Israeli response.

"We want to make sure that we have the commitment from both sides that, when he travels, we can make progress," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Publicly, Netanyahu on Monday was giving no quarter. In remarks to parliament, he said Israel has been building in East Jerusalem for more than four decades. "The building of those Jewish neighborhoods in no way hurt the Arabs of East Jerusalem and did not come at their expense," he said.

The Obama administration had originally sought a halt to all settlement activity in the West Bank -- and also in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the site of a future capital but which Israel annexed in a move not recognized by other nations. The United States accepted a 10-month moratorium, with caveats that excluded East Jerusalem and existing projects in the West Bank. But U.S. officials believed they had extracted a secret promise from Netanyahu not to allow any provocative steps in East Jerusalem.

Now, in effect, the administration wants Netanyahu to make that deal public -- and stick to it. "He has to take a firm stand to prevent similar kinds of announcements that will have a negative effect on negotiations," the official said.

Israeli officials say it would be politically perilous for Netanyahu to reverse the recent decision -- and it is unclear if he would have the legal authority to do so. The housing announcement was made by a regional planning committee.

"He could make a request of the regional authority, but they have the final say," said George Birnbaum, former chief of staff for the prime minister. "It is almost as if President Obama were held accountable for a housing project approved by Fairfax County."

The demand that Netanyahu declare core issues such as borders, refugees and Jerusalem part of the indirect talks could split Netanyahu's fragile coalition government. Some members refuse to give up any part of Jerusalem in talks with the Palestinians and would not accept the status of the holy city as part of negotiations.

The requested gesture to Palestinians could take several forms, such as releasing prisoners or turning over more of the West Bank to Palestinian control.


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