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U.S., Israel try to repair ties

WASHINGTON — The United States and Israel engaged in overtime talks Wednesday trying to win agreement on gestures Israel can take to restore confidence among Palestinians and the Obama administration and salvaging a diplomatic visit marred by the worst U.S.-Israeli breach in years.

U.S. and Israeli officials told the Associated Press the closed-door talks were aimed at getting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track. The talks ended about 8 p.m. without any announcements.

The administration's special Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, met late Wednesday afternoon with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who extended his stay by hours to work on a deal. They hoped to come up with mutually acceptable ideas to improve an atmosphere poisoned by announcements of new Jewish housing projects on land claimed by Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu twice pushed back his departure from Washington after talks with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to reach consensus on what Israel could do to repair damage caused by the housing announcements. He had been due to leave after seeing Obama on Tuesday, then postponed his departure until Wednesday morning and again until late Wednesday night in order to see Mitchell.

During Netanyahu's frosty visit, "the U.S. made clear it is looking for steps to increase confidence and show commitment to the process," said Mark Toner, the deputy State Department spokesman.

Earlier Wednesday, the Obama administration challenged Israel to explain yet another announced plan to expand Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, the same issue that soured U.S.-Israeli relations ahead of Netanyahu's three-day visit this week.

Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, and the United States sees continued Israeli building there as a provocation that makes peace negotiations harder.

Netanyahu offered no concessions during his visit on an earlier plan to build 1,600 homes for Jews in the disputed part of the city. His government has refused to back off steady expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in the majority Arab city section.

An aide to Netanyahu said the prime minister was caught off guard by the announcement Wednesday that the Jerusalem municipality has approved 20 new apartments for Jews.

U.N. calls for Arab leaders' support

Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon says he will urge Arab leaders this weekend to support indirect talks between the Palestinians and Israelis despite their anger over Israel's approval of new homes for Jews in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem. He said it's crucial for Arab countries to help create "a favorable atmosphere" for the talks to succeed.

U.S., Israel try to repair ties 03/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 11:03pm]
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