Netanyahu Extends Washington Visit as U.S., Israel Disagreements Persist

Officials remain tight-lipped about the White House meetings.

March 24, 2010, 3:04 PM

March 24, 2010— -- The U.S.-Israel spat may not be over yet.

Despite the insistence of officials on both sides that tensions have cooled, there are fresh indications that disagreements persist between the two sides.

President Obama sat down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House Tuesday, looking to smooth over relations that had soured in recent weeks after announcements by the Israeli Interior Ministry that it would build new housing units in East Jerusalem.

But moments before the two men met, word leaked out in Jerusalem that another 20 new apartments had been approved for Jews in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Although officials from both sides refuse to describe the meeting, indications are it did not go as planned.

After a nearly 90 minute meeting with Obama, Netanyahu retreated to the Roosevelt Room in the White House to confer with his aides. An hour later, he requested another meeting with the president, who had since gone upstairs to his residence. Officials say the two leaders then met for another 35 minutes.

The White House said today that staff from both sides met until 12:30 a.m. ET and planned to continue talks today.

Netanyahu has lingered in Washington with an unusually quiet schedule, and his departure time is said to be up in the air. Israeli officials say he is huddled with his advisors.

U.S. officials say U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell will meet with Netanyahu today to continue discussions, though officials refuse to say what topics are on the table.

Both sides are staying tight-lipped about last night's mysterious meetings between Obama and Netanyahu at the White House. The meetings were completely closed to the press – no reporters allowed and no photos released by the White House.

"I'm at this point not going to get into walking through the substance of what they discussed," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said today other than to describe the meetings as "honest and straightforward."

U.S., Israel Spat Over Settlements Persists

While the Israeli press reports the frosty impasse has not been broken, administration officials said that disagreements remain and Obama has asked Netanyahu "to take steps to build confidence for proximity talks so that progress can be made toward peace."

"There are areas of agreement, and some areas of disagreement, but the conversation is ongoing," an administration official said.

Both the United States and Israel have made efforts to tamp down the recent tensions, which flared up during Vice President Biden's trip to the region earlier this month. While Biden was there, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced plans for new settlements in East Jerusalem. The vice president issued an unusually strong rebuke to this move by the Israelis, going so far as to say he condemned the decision which he said "undermines the trust" needed to make progress toward peace.

But as the United States aims to smooth things over, senior officials keep up the strong rhetoric.

In remarks to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC's annual conference this morning, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to support Israel, but held her ground in opposing the housing expansion in East Jerusalem.

"As Israel's friend, it is our responsibility to give credit when it is due and to tell the truth when it is needed," Clinton said after reaffirming the administration's commitment to Israel. "Both Israelis and Palestinians must refrain from unilateral statements and actions that undermine the process or prejudice the outcome of talks."

In his own remarks to AIPAC later on Monday, Netanyahu insisted on Israel's right to build in Jerusalem.

"The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied," he said to loud applause from the audience. "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It's our capital."

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