U.S. and Israeli officials struggled Wednesday to resolve a sharp dispute over U.S. demands that Israel make goodwill gestures to lure Palestinian officials back to the negotiating table.
Visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held two hours of talks with President Obama on Tuesday night, cleared his schedule Wednesday to undertake additional negotiations with senior U.S. officials, including special peace envoy George Mitchell and White House adviser Dennis Ross. The prime minister, who was to leave Washington late Wednesday, also went twice to the Israeli Embassy to talk securely with officials back home about the negotiations.
Wednesday's talks ended at about 8 p.m. without any announcements.
U.S. and Israeli officials are working on a document dubbed "the blueprint," which covers all issues, including Jerusalem, that need to be resolved to let talks go forward. Netanyahu will attempt to sell it to his Cabinet while Mitchell will take it to Arab and Palestinian officials for approval.
Netanyahu's talks with Obama were shrouded in an unusual news blackout, with no statement after the meeting and no official photographs.
U.S. officials said the two men met one-on-one at the White House for about 1 1/2 hours. Netanyahu then huddled with his senior staff in the Roosevelt Room for 90 minutes before requesting a second meeting with Obama. Netanyahu is said to have made some kind of counteroffer in that half-hour meeting that was not accepted.
Ever since the administration was blindsided by Israel's March 9 announcement that it intends to build 1,600 housing units in a disputed area of Jerusalem, U.S. officials have pressed Israel to take actions to encourage Palestinians to attend indirect peace talks, including canceling the housing project, making concrete gestures such as a prisoner release and adding substantive rather than procedural issues to the talks agenda. Some U.S. requests have not been made public.
White House spokesman Michael Gibbs made no apologies for the low profile of the Netanyahu visit, which appeared to be the diplomatic equivalent of taking the Israeli leader to the woodshed. "We've handled different visits in different ways, and this is the way we felt most comfortable handling this one," Gibbs said.
As Obama met with Netanyahu, news leaked in Israel that approval had been given to construct 20 additional housing units in East Jerusalem, in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
The U.S. had previously objected to the project, which would be built on the site of the Shepherd Hotel, the former home of the late Haj Amin Husseini, a former mufti of Jerusalem. It is now owned by Florida developer Irving Moskovitz.