Helene Cooper, Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
March 25, 2010 - 12:00am

With Israeli officials saying that construction on a contentious Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem could begin at any time, President Obama seemed to have failed on Wednesday to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give a written commitment to rein in any further building and to move ahead on peace talks with the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu left the United States early on Thursday. But before departing for Jerusalem, he said that he thought some progress had been made in healing the rift with Washington, The Associated Press reported. “I think we have found the golden path between Israel’s traditional policies and our desire to move forward toward peace,” he said, according to The A.P.

No joint statement was released after the talks ended.

Israeli and American negotiators huddled in Washington for a second straight day, but Mr. Netanyahu continued to balk at American demands that he find a way to reverse another East Jerusalem housing plan: the one in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood that was announced during Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s trip to Israel this month, which had ignited the diplomatic storm.

The Obama administration also wanted Mr. Netanyahu to allow scheduled negotiations with the Palestinians to focus on substantive issues like borders and security.

After a session with Mr. Obama in the Oval Office on Tuesday night that lasted an hour and a half, Mr. Netanyahu met with his own negotiators for another hour and a half in the White House Roosevelt Room.

Then he returned to the Oval Office for a final 30-minute session with Mr. Obama before returning to his hotel.

Having delayed his departure, Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday continued the talks, which included a session with Mr. Obama’s Middle East representative, George J. Mitchell.

United States and Israeli officials said they would continue to negotiate.

“The president has asked the prime minister for certain things to build confidence,” the White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said.

In a sign of how hard it may be to resolve the dispute, Israeli officials confirmed Tuesday that another East Jerusalem project was under way, this one for 20 residential units in the Shepherd Hotel compound in a neighborhood populated mostly by Palestinians.

Jerusalem City Hall gave the project the final go-ahead on March 18, days after city officials said the landowners had paid the required fees.

Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Wednesday that the United States was seeking clarification on the building project.

In New York, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, told the Security Council, “All settlement activity is illegal, but inserting settlers into Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem is particularly troubling.”

“This leads to tensions and undermines prospects for addressing the final status of Jerusalem,” Mr. Ban said.

News of the latest project was first published by an Israeli news Web site, Ynet, on Tuesday night, shortly before Mr. Netanyahu was scheduled to begin his meeting with Mr. Obama.

In Israel, officials described the Ynet report as “distorted” and intended “to stir up a provocation” during Mr. Netanyahu’s visit. The plan received final approval last July, the officials said.

Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war, but its annexation was never internationally recognized. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.

The Obama administration had been close to starting indirect talks, called proximity talks, between the Israelis and Palestinians, with an American envoy shuttling between the sides, but the talks were put off after the row over the 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu has apologized for the bad timing of the announcement during the vice president’s visit but continues to insist publicly on Israel’s right to build anywhere in Jerusalem. The Obama administration, for its part, is now insisting on public assurances from Israel that it will take constructive steps to resuscitate the peace talks.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said Wednesday in a statement that “Israel is digging itself into a hole that it will have to climb out of if it is serious about peace.”

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, will decide whether he is willing to go through with the proximity talks after he receives a report from the White House about the discussions with Mr. Netanyahu, Palestinian officials said.


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