Israeli cabinet considers response to US demands

Netanyahu returns from a tense visit to Washington with an apparent deepening bitter row over the building of Jewish settlements.

Israel vowed policy on Jerusalem would not change as the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet today to craft a response to US demands for peace-promoting concessions. Mr Netanyahu returned yesterday from a tense visit to Washington that appeared to deepen a bitter row with the administration of the US president Barack Obama over the building of Jewish settlements, including in annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

"The prime minister's position is that there is no change in Israel's policy on Jerusalem that has been pursued by all governments of Israel for the last 42 years," his office said in a statement. The Americans have reportedly demanded from Netanyahu a series of steps to help kick-start stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. The hawkish premier was discussing the US demands with his inner forum of seven senior ministers.

The cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser said it was unlikely there would be quick agreement from the seven and denied media reports of a US deadline to supply answers by tomorrow night. "I suggest you wait patiently," he told public radio. "If there is a necessity for further discussions they will happen." "All aspects of the issue will be examined and they will formulate Israel's position according to Israel's interests and in the time needed to do so," he said.

Israeli media said it was unlikely that the security cabinet, which includes several hardline politicians, would reach agreement. Meanwhile, a pro-settler lobby in parliament sent a letter to some of the ministers urging them not to cave in. "There is no place for further concessions from Israel as a condition to renewing talks. Don't surrender to Palestinian blackmail and international pressure for further concessions," said the letter from the Land of Israel Lobby.

Mr Netanyahu's carefully co-ordinated dressing down in Washington was reportedly accompanied by demands for wide-ranging measures including the extension of a partial settlement halt and the release o hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. There was an unusually opaque news blackout throughout the visit, no concrete achievements were reported and the Israeli leader was given none of the trappings usually reserved for visitors such as a photo opportunity and press conference.

Still, both sides tried to put a more positive spin on what has been called the worst crisis between the allies in decades, insisting progress had been made on important issues. The spat erupted after Mr Netanyahu's government announced it would build 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem as the US Vice President Joe Biden was in the region earlier this month hoping to promote peace talks.

The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state, and refuse to meet Mr Netanyahu face-to-face without a complete freeze of settlement construction in the occupied territories. Israel seized east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community. * AFP