WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at the White House Tuesday in the midst of a serious dispute that spoiled what might have been a celebration of a recent agreement for a new round of peace talks with the Palestinians.
Obama and Netanyahu conferred for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office, but in a break with custom reporters were not invited to see the close allies shake hands and begin their discussions. The White House had no immediate comment on what was discussed. Netanyahu did not leave the White House for another two hours after his formal talks with Obama, but what he was doing during that time was not immediately clear.
At issue is Israel's announcement two weeks ago, as Vice President Joe Biden visited the country, that it will build 1,600 new apartments in east Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have delayed new U.S.-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.
Israel Tuesday unveiled a grandiose plan for hotels, businesses and new housing for Palestinians in the center of east Jerusalem, but that only brought Palestinian suspicion that it was an unacceptable payoff for new building in Jewish neighborhoods. The plan calls for developing a large area across from the Old City wall for tourism and commerce, as well as building 1,000 additional apartments.
On Capitol Hill, Netanyahu received a warm public reception from Congress Tuesday, with a top Democrat and Republican joining to praise a leader who has refused to back down in a disagreement the White House says threatens new peace talks. "We in Congress stand by Israel," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Netanyahu at an appearance before the cameras. House Republican leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) also attended.
U.S. Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell spent Sunday and Monday shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian officials. He returned to Washington Tuesday but appeared to have made little headway with the Palestinians. The State Department said the administration had "seen progress" from Mitchell's discussion but gave no dates for the start of a new round of talks.