Text size

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that he was surprised by the U.S. administration's public condemnation of his government over Israel's announcement that it would construct 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

Sources in the prime minister's bureau said the crisis appeared to be orchestrated by the U.S. administration, as Netanyahu had apologized to U.S. Vice President Biden and believed that the crisis was behind the two allies.

Netanyahu convened a meeting of the forum of seven cabinet ministers yesterday evening to discuss the diplomatic tension with the Obama administration. At the end of the meeting, the prime minister announced the establishment of an inquiry into the timing of the Ramat Shlomo announcement.

The United States has dispensed harsh criticism of Israel's announcement last Tuesday about apartment construction in Jerusalem - a move that deeply embarrassed then visiting U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and imperiled U.S. plans to launch indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Netanyahu has repeatedly said he was unaware of the East Jerusalem construction plan.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed Israel's announcement "insulting" to the United States.

"I mean, it was just really a very unfortunate and difficult moment for everyone - the United States, our vice president who had gone to reassert our strong support for Israeli security - and I regret deeply that that occurred and made that known," Clinton said during an interview with CNN.

Clinton did not blame Netanyahu personally for the announcement, but she said: "He is the prime minister. Like the president or secretary of state...ultimately, you are responsible."

Netanyahu spoke with Clinton over the weekend in what was described to reporters as a 45-minute conversation in which the premier mostly remained quiet and listened to Clinton's scathing criticism.

Netanyahu later called European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian President Silvio Berlusconi, to discuss the crisis with the U.S.

"This was an embarrassing incident," Netanyahu told the European leaders. "I admit that, and I am sorry, and I even apologized to Vice President Biden, but I was not in any way aware of the building plan ahead of the announcement."

Netanyahu also discussed Israeli construction in East Jerusalem with the two leaders, saying, "This government's policy regarding building in East Jerusalem is no different than that of any other government."

He added: "In all negotiations conducted up until now, Israel has clarified for the Palestinians and the U.S. that these neighborhoods are part of the Jerusalem bloc that will remain in Israeli hands in any final-status agreement."

Netanyahu also told Merkel and Berlusconi that regulations would be instituted to avoid such embarrassments in the future.

Earlier in the week, Netanyahu said he believed that despite the conflict with the U.S. over the plan for new housing in East Jerusalem, indirect talks with the Palestinians would continue as planned early next week.

U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell is expected in Israel on Tuesday and is set to meet with Netanyahu.

ADL slams Clinton's 'over-reaction'

In Washington, the Anti-Defamation League, which lobbies for Israel with U.S. lawmakers, called Clinton's remarks on the diplomatic debacle a "gross over-reaction".

"We are shocked and stunned at the administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel," the ADL's Abraham Foxman said. "We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States. One can only wonder how far the U.S. is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians."

Meanwhile, the European Union yesterday added its voice to the chorus of disapproval of Israel's announcement of plans to build new homes in East Jerusalem, with foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton slamming the decision and warning that peace talks with the Palestinians could fail for good.

"I'm very concerned, I'm concerned that Israel announced this just as the proximity talks were beginning," she said on the eve of a tour of the Middle East.

Ashton will visit Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and possibly also Gaza, as Israel has approved her visiting through its territory. She is slated to give a major speech in Egypt before attending a meeting of the Middle East Quartet in Moscow.

Ashton, speaking to the press at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Finland yesterday, called on Prime Minister Netanyahu "to demonstrate leadership" and stressed that she would tell him that "he's in a unique position, he has a high rating in Israel, and it's not always the case." Netanyahu, she said, should seize the opportunity to take his people to "the possibility of a long-term calm and prosperity."

Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, echoed these sentiments. "Until now, it's not too late, but if we wait for more than two years, it will be too late," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said, warning that "the Palestinian moderate leadership would not be able to maintain themselves as a peaceful partner, so the time is for urgency, for moving forward."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, was more direct, attacking the announcement on settlements directly and saying the Israeli "government says they are interested in restarting the peace negotiations," but sends "decidedly bad signals - and now it's now up to the Israeli government to really prove that they want peace."