NEW ORLEANS — Hecklers interrupted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to a prominent American Jewish group on Monday, the same day his government said it would move ahead with hundreds of new housing units in disputed East Jerusalem.
The five Jewish-American and Israeli protesters held banners denouncing the settlements. Sheriff's deputies escorted them out to a chorus of shouts and boos, and they were released without charges. One audience member took a protest banner left behind and ripped it with his teeth.
Netanyahu accused the protesters of joining those who believe "Israel is guilty until proven guilty."
"The greatest success of our detractors is when Jews start believing that themselves. We've seen that today," the prime minister told the assembly.
His visit comes at a delicate moment in Mideast peacemaking, when the United States is working to get Israel to slow down settlement activity so that fledgling negotiations can have a chance.
Israel's Interior Ministry sought to play down the significance of the new Jerusalem housing, saying actual construction could be years away. But the announcement cast a shadow over Netanyahu's visit, during which he is conferring with U.S. officials over how to revive peace talks.
The hecklers, members of the Young Leadership Institute of Jewish Voice for Peace, stood and shouted at different times during Netanyahu's speech to the Jewish Federations of North America.
In his address, Netanyahu said Palestinian leaders need to stop "making preconditions."
He said Israel is eager to talk peace, but that it was counterproductive to "waste our time arguing about marginal issues that will not affect the peace math in any way."
That comment was likely a reference to his contention that much of the settlement activity — including the East Jerusalem projects discussed Monday — is taking place on lands that will probably remain in Israeli hands in any final peace deal.
Palestinians contend that all Israeli building on lands they claim for a future state is unacceptable. They are threatening to walk away from peace talks, restarted just two months ago, unless Israel agrees to renew curbs on West Bank settlement construction that expired in September.
An Israeli Interior Ministry official, Efrat Orbach, said Monday that his government was moving ahead with plans to build nearly 1,300 apartments in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to place their future capital. The announcement drew a harsh response from the State Department, which called it "deeply disappointing" and "counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties."