Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
March 25, 2010 - 12:00am

After contentious meetings in the White House, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned home on Thursday with the politically explosive task of responding to an unyielding American demand that he limit Israeli building in East Jerusalem.

The details of the American requests are tightly held. But indirect peace talks with the Palestinians have been in jeopardy since Israel announced 1,600 new housing units in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood on land wanted by the Palestinians for their future capital, marring a visit here by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. two weeks ago. The goal of the current American effort is to get those talks started.

Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, anchored by his Likud Party, views Jerusalem, west and east, as the undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people, where it can build where it wants. The Palestinians and their supporters throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds view East Jerusalem as holy and as rightfully under Palestinian sovereignty.

Since the disrupted Biden visit, the Obama administration has been telling Mr. Netanyahu that Israel needs to rein in its Jewish construction in East Jerusalem and offer other signs of good will to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Netanyahu has brought up several possible gestures, including restrictions on Israeli troop activities in the West Bank, the freeing of Palestinian prisoners, some latitude for reconstruction in Gaza and further efforts to bolster the Palestinian economy.

The Americans have welcomed those gestures. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said Thursday, “We’re making progress on important issues.”

But building in Jerusalem remains the sticking point. Mr. Netanyahu is expected to meet on Friday with his top seven cabinet ministers to begin to form his response. It may be some days or longer before it is complete.

The Arab League is scheduled to meet this weekend in Libya and is likely to repeat demands for a freeze on Israeli building in occupied areas before giving a final endorsement to the return of the Palestinian Authority to peace talks with Israel. Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian president, has sought pan-Arab cover for his decision to return to the talks.

Mr. Netanyahu returned to an overheated political atmosphere fed in part by news coverage of his Washington trip, describing his treatment at the White House as deeply humiliating because neither photographs or ceremony marked his visit.

There is little doubt that Obama administration officials thought it was appropriate to reciprocate the embarrassment felt by Mr. Biden here and to send a tough message about the need for commitment regarding Jerusalem, American officials said.

“People keep saying that the Israelis, by building these settlements, are creating an impediment to negotiations,” said David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official who has written about the shaping of American foreign policy. “My reaction is, no they’re not. They’re negotiating. They’re sending a message. And Obama is sending a message right back.”

In Israel, officials said they could not imagine how Mr. Netanyahu could agree to a substantial reduction in building in Jerusalem and still expect to hold on to his office. “The expectation and demand that there be no more construction in Jerusalem is unreasonable,” said Limor Livnat, culture and sports minister and a member of Likud, on Israel Radio. “It is an expectation that the Israeli prime minister cannot accede to.”

In an interview with Yom Yom, an ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Eli Yishai, who leads the Interior Ministry, which pushed forward the 1,600 units during Mr. Biden’s visit, said, “I thank God I have been given the opportunity to be the minister who approves the construction of thousands of housing units in Jerusalem.”

American officials said that their goal was not to make the government collapse, but that without a real reduction in Jewish building in East Jerusalem, peace talks with the Palestinians would be imperiled.


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