Obama and Netanyahu Dial Back Tensions But Hold Their Ground

ABC News' Kirit Radia reports:

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet later today for the first time since a public feud over Israel’s announcement two weeks ago that it would expand housing in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The housing announcement came shortly after Vice President arrived in the country and a day after US Middle East envoy George Mitchell announced the start of “proximity talks,” or peace talks through a US intermediary. Days later Secretary Clinton called Netanyahu to demanded he reverse the announcement and take steps towards to the Palestinians. She later heated up the rhetoric by calling the Israeli announcement an “insult” to the United States.

Both sides have since taken step steps to dial back the tension. Netanyahu has responded to Clinton’s call by proposing confidence building steps towards the Palestinians, but has not said he would reverse the East Jerusalem housing decision.

In remarks yesterday both Clinton and Netanyahu reaffirmed the strength of the US-Israeli relationship, but held their ground in the debate over housing announcements.

In a morning address to the annual policy conference hosted by an highly influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Clinton declared that “for President Obama and for me, and for this entire Administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever.”

However, she later reiterated the administration’s opposition to the East Jerusalem announcement, saying: “New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say want and need.”

Late last night Netanyahu also addressed AIPAC following meetings with Clinton and Biden. He defended Israel’s right to build in East Jerusalem.

“The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied. 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,” he said, drawing loud applause from the audience.

In November, Netanyahu agreed to freeze settlement construction for 10 months, but specifically exempted East Jerusalem. The move fell short of US demands for a complete freeze, but Secretary Clinton nevertheless praised the decision as “unprecedented.”

In his remarks last night, Netanyahu cited the move and the removal of roadblocks in the West Bank as evidence of Israel’s willingness to negotiate peace. He called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to reciprocate.

“From day one, we called on the Palestinian Authority to begin peace negotiations without delay. I make that same call today. President Abbas, come and negotiate peace,” he said.

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