WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House on Tuesday in the midst of a serious dispute that spoiled what might have been a celebration of a recent agreement for a new round of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Obama and Netanyahu conferred for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office, but in a break with custom reporters were not invited to see the close allies shake hands and begin their discussions. The White House had no immediate comment on what was discussed.
At issue is Israel's announcement two weeks ago, as Vice President Joe Biden visited, that it will build 1,600 new apartments in East Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have delayed new U.S.-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.
Israel on Tuesday unveiled a grandiose plan for hotels, businesses and new housing for Palestinians in the center of East Jerusalem, but the announcement only brought Palestinian suspicion that it was an unacceptable payoff for new building in Jewish neighborhoods. The plan calls for developing a large area across from the Old City wall for tourism and commerce, as well as building 1,000 additional apartments.
On Capitol Hill, Netanyahu received a warm public reception from Congress, with a top Democrat and Republican joining to praise a leader who has refused to back down in a disagreement the White House says threatens new peace talks.
The bipartisan welcome underscored the breadth of congressional support for Israel even when a U.S. president wants to keep his distance. And it pointed to the limited options, beyond verbal rebukes, that the Obama administration faces in pressuring the Jewish state.
"We in Congress stand by Israel," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., assured Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. "In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greeted Netanyahu this week with a polite rebuke: Expansionist Israeli housing policies erode trust and the U.S. position as an honest broker. His public reply came quickly: Jews have built homes in Jerusalem for centuries and will continue, he told a pro-Israel audience.
U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell spent Sunday and Monday shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian officials. He returned to Washington for meetings on Tuesday but appeared to have made little headway with the Palestinians. The State Department said the administration had "seen progress" from Mitchell's discussion but gave no dates for the start of a new round of talks with Mitchell as go-between.