The State Department says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday to reiterate deep U.S. concern over an announcement this week that Israel will build more housing in East Jerusalem. The action coincided with an Israel visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
In one of the strongest U.S. protests of Israeli conduct in recent years, the State Department says Clinton told the Israeli leader that the housing move undermined both trust and confidence in the peace process, and American interests in the Middle East.
The telephone conversation, initiated by Clinton, was a follow-up to previous U.S. complaints about Israel's announcement Tuesday that it will build 1,600 new Jewish housing units in predominately-Arab East Jerusalem.
The announcement was an embarrassment to Vice President Biden, who had just begun a visit to Israel, and it threatened to torpedo a U.S.-brokered tentative agreement under which Israel and the Palestinians would resume indirect peace talks.
Prime Minister Netanyahu later expressed regret over the timing of the announcement but gave no indication it will be rescinded.
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Clinton, in her call, reiterated strong U.S. objections about both the timing and substance of the Israeli action.
He said the United States views it as a "deeply negative signal" about Israel's approach to bilateral relations, and counter to the spirit of the Biden trip. "The Secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to Israel's security. And she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process," he said.
Asked if Clinton had expressed anger in her comments to Mr. Netanyahu, a senior U.S. official who spoke to reporters said "frustration would be a better term."
The Israeli decision to build more housing in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope to make the capital of a future state, prompted Arab calls for Palestinians to back out of their agreement have so-called "proximity" peace talks with Israel.
It prompted an intensive round of U.S. telephone diplomacy to try to save the agreement brokered by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Crowley said Mitchell and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman since Thursday have called, among others, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, and the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Officials said Mitchell still intends to make a visit to the region in the coming days that was to have sealed an agreement on the proximity negotiations.
But they said Mitchell, the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Northern Ireland peace negotiator, might first join Secretary Clinton in Moscow next Friday for a meeting of the international "quartet" on the Middle East.
The informal grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations has been trying to expedite negotiations based on among other things the "road map" to regional peace it issued in 2003.