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Netanyahu refuses to back down on settlement issue

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear Monday that settlement building in east Jerusalem would continue. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton shot back stating that settlements "make a two state solution impossible."

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REUTERS - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday rejected any curbs on Jewish settlement in and around Jerusalem, defying Washington in Israel's deepening crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration.

"For the past 40 years, no Israeli government ever limited construction in the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem," he said in a speech in parliament, citing areas in the West Bank that Israel captured in 1967 and unilaterally annexed to the city.

The United States has condemned Israel's plan to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in Ramat Shlomo, a religious settlement within the Israeli-designated borders of Jerusalem, whose future status is at the heart of the Middle East conflict.

Israel's announcement of the project during a visit last week by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden embarrassed the White House. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in unusually blunt remarks, called it an insult.

The Palestinians, who had just agreed to begin indirect peace talks under U.S. mediation, have said they will not go ahead unless the plan is scrapped.

An Israeli official said U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell planned to return to Israel on Tuesday for talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on getting the talks under way.

In parliament, Netanyahu, who heads a coalition that includes pro-settler parties, including his own, said there was nearly total consensus in Israel that annexed areas of Jerusalem would be part of the Jewish state in any future peace deal.

Israeli media said Clinton had demanded a reversal of the decision to build in Ramat Shlomo. Netanyahu's comments appeared to signal to Washington that he believed he had political backing at home to withstand U.S. pressure.

 

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Netanyahu imposed a 10-month moratorium on new housing starts in West Bank settlements in November, but excluded Jerusalem. The Obama administration, which had earlier pressed for a complete freeze, welcomed the move at the time, but the Palestinians deemed it inadequate.

On Sunday, Netanyahu tried to play down what his envoy to Washington was reported to have described as a "crisis of historic proportions", voicing regret at a cabinet meeting for the timing of the Ramat Shlomo announcement.

The rift with Washington has raised concern in Israel that security cooperation with the United States in confronting a potentially nuclear-armed Iran might be harmed.

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Nabil Abu Rdainah, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, pledged again not to return to peace talks until settlement was halted.

Israeli troops injured at least seven Palestinians at a checkpoint north of Ramallah during a rock-throwing protest against the Ramat Shlomo project and Israel's consecration of an ancient synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, a tinderbox site in the conflict.

Palestinians said the soldiers had fired live rounds but the Israeli military denied this, saying crowd-dispersal measures had been employed.

Tensions between Palestinians and Israel, which has occupied the West Bank since 1967, have escalated in recent weeks following an Israeli government decision to include West Bank religious sites in a Jewish national heritage plan.

Citing biblical and historical links, Israel sees all of Jerusalem as its capital, a claim that is not recognised internationally. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Some 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and about 2.5 million Palestinians.

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