WASHINGTON — The United States and Israel stepped back Tuesday from their deepest rift in decades, a dispute over new Jewish homes in a traditionally Arab part of Jerusalem that quickly became a test of U.S. and Israeli commitment to peace talks and each other.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said U.S. and Israeli officials are in intense talks about resuming peace negotiations, moving past the breach opened when Israel announced last week, during a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Joe Biden, that it will build 1,600 more Jewish houses in East Jerusalem.
Israeli officials privately say Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu — Washington-bound next week — is willing to go to some lengths to calm tensions. U.S. officials are also looking for a way to finesse their demand that Israel cancel the construction.
There is no obvious half-measure, and both countries are wary of looking weak to the other, to important political constituencies at home and to the Arab world. Still, the rhetoric from both capitals suddenly softened.
"We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people," Clinton said. "We share common values and a commitment to a democratic future for the world and we are both committed to a two-state solution. But that doesn't mean that we're going to agree."
Clinton has been the leading voice of U.S. outrage over the episode, which embarrassed Biden and called into question Israel's stated willingness to resume talks with the United States as an intermediary. She has called the announcement an insult and dressed down Netanyahu by telephone last week. The United States wants to see a gesture from Israel to the Palestinians and a statement that the biggest issues dividing those two parties, including the fate of Jerusalem, will be on the table for talks.
"Israel appreciates and values the warm words of Secretary of State Clinton about the deep ties between Israel and the U.S. and the commitment of the U.S. to Israel's security," government spokesman Mark Regev said in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu on Tuesday ordered his ministers and spokespeople not to talk publicly about the building plan.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office issued the order for the new homes, agreed to speak on other issues. "I am very sorry that there is an escalation now and we are taking many measures to calm this," he said.