JERUSALEM (AP) — Aides to Israel's prime minister said Thursday that his government has officially rejected President Barack Obama's demand that it suspends all construction in contested east Jerusalem, a move that threatens to entrench a year-old deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
The aides said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his government's position to Obama over the weekend, ahead of the scheduled arrival later Thursday of Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell.
Washington had put Mitchell's shuttle diplomacy on hold as it awaited a reply from Israel, and aides to Netanyahu provided no information on whether the Israeli leader had offered any other concessions to the Palestinians in an effort to restart the long-stalled talks.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the contact between the two leaders was private.
Israel and the Palestinians had been set to launch U.S.-mediated negotiations last month when Israel announced plans during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to build 1,600 homes in a Jewish housing project in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim the city's eastern sector as capital of a future state.
The negotiations were put on hold and infuriated the Americans. U.S. officials have been pushing Israel to call off the project, freeze further construction in east Jerusalem and make other goodwill gestures to the Palestinians.
Proposals have included a release of some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails and the removal of some of the roadblocks hindering the movement of Palestinian people and goods in the West Bank.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called the Netanyahu position "very unfortunate" and said he hoped the U.S. "will be able to convince the Israeli government to give peace a chance by halting settlement construction in east Jerusalem and elsewhere."
Netanyahu has argued that his position on east Jerusalem is long-standing policy of past governments.
The status of east Jerusalem, home to shrines sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, is the most emotionally fraught issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed it, and does not consider Jewish construction there to be settlement activity.
The Palestinians and the rest of the international community do not recognize that annexation or distinguish construction there from settlement activity in the West Bank, which Israel did not annex after capturing it also in the 1967 war.
Last week, Obama issued a surprisingly pessimistic assessment of peacemaking prospects, saying the U.S. couldn't force its will on Israelis and Palestinians if they weren't interested in making the compromises necessary to end their decades-old conflict.
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