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U.S. to Israel: Nix east Jerusalem apartments

JERUSALEM - The Obama administration is demanding that Israel call off a contentious building project in east Jerusalem and make a public gesture toward the Palestinians to help defuse one of the worst U.S.-Israeli feuds in memory, officials on both sides said yesterday.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed little sign of yielding, saying Jewish construction in east Jerusalem "in no way" hurts Palestinians. A Jerusalem city spokesman suggested Jewish building there would continue.

Announcement of the plan to build 1,600 apartments for Jews in the Ramot Shlomo neighborhood came during Vice President Joe Biden's visit last week, embarrassing him and the Obama administration, angering Palestinians and endangering the start of indirect peace negotiations that are to be mediated by a U.S. envoy.

Adding to tensions was a ceremony yesterday in the walled Old City in east Jerusalem, where Jews rededicated an ancient synagogue destroyed after the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.

Israeli police sent in reinforcements to prevent riots. The synagogue is in the Jewish Quarter, but Palestinians still saw the colorful celebration as an affront.

After a weekend of rare broadsides from top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, American demands became clear yesterday. The United States wants Israel to cancel the construction plan, officials said.

American officials said they were also insisting that Israel take significant steps to get peace talks back on track. These might include releasing Palestinian prisoners or turning over additional West Bank land to Palestinian control.

But Netanyahu appeared unreceptive to the main demand, defending four decades of construction for Israelis in east Jerusalem. "The building of those Jewish neighborhoods in no way hurt the Arabs of east Jerusalem and did not come at their expense," he told his parliament.

Netanyahu has apologized for the timing of the project's approval but has not said he will cancel it.

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