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United States takes the upper hand in spat with Israel

MOSCOW - An extraordinary test of wills between the United States and Israel has left the Obama administration a stronger negotiator both with its closest ally in the Middle East and with Arab nations needed to broker peace with the Palestinians.

The United States appears likely to pull Israel and the Palestinians back toward preliminary peace talks after more than a week of harsh words about Israeli housing policies that Arabs and many Americans see as land grabs.

The way ahead probably will become clearer in coming days as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington as early as Monday and U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell resumes his shuttle diplomacy today.

Netanyahu's meetings with U.S. officials will test the limits of U.S. influence over its closest ally in the Middle East and the right-wing Israeli leader's latitude with even more hawkish elements of his fractious governing coalition.

The U.S.-Israeli dust-up began when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new apartments for Jews in contested east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want to serve as their capital. The announcement was made during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, deeply embarrassing the Obama administration just as it believed indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians were about to begin. The Arab League abruptly withdrew its endorsement of the preliminary talks, to be managed by Mitchell.

Palestinians want Israel to halt all construction of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. They claim those areas for a future state, along with the Gaza Strip.

Clinton condemned the Israelis for their action, even questioning the Jewish state's commitment to its security relationship with Washington.

But the United States is giving Netanyahu political breathing space while saddling him with a political debt that Washington hopes will lead him to engage more forthrightly in peace talks with the Palestinians.

From the Arab point of view, the administration's willingness to tussle with Netanyahu over a key issue in the peace process can be seen as evidence of U.S. evenhandedness.

There is little prospect of reaching an early settlement of the long-running conflict, but talks under almost any conditions are a diplomatic coup for President Barack Obama, who pledged as a candidate that he would make peace a priority and not wait for perfect conditions that might never come.

Talks broke off more than a year ago, in the closing days of the Bush administration.

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