- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Senior members of Israel’s ruling coalition on Thursday rallied behind embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his dispute with the United States, saying Israel would keep on building Jewish homes in east Jerusalem and accusing Washington of unfairly putting pressure on the government.

The hard-line stance signaled even deeper trouble for the United States as it tries to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which broke down more than a year ago.

Mr. Netanyahu left Washington early Thursday after a last-ditch effort to heal the rift over Israel’s policies in east Jerusalem appeared to fail. The United States wants Israel to stop building Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, the section of the city that the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

Mr. Netanyahu refuses, saying the entire holy city must remain Israel’s capital.

Silvan Shalom, Mr. Netanyahu’s deputy and sometimes rival in the ruling Likud Party, told Israel Radio on Thursday that he “completely supports” the prime minister, saying that the Jewish people’s historical bond to Jerusalem is unbreakable.

“The subject of building in Jerusalem is unconditional, and if we blink, we will lose everything,” Mr. Shalom said, warning the government would collapse if Israel backs down.

“The prime minister has a mandate not just from Likud voters or the Jewish people here but from the Jewish people from throughout the generations, and therefore in this regard we have no option to accept another decision, and no other decision can be made.”

While he said the relationship with Washington is critical for Israel, he said “the United States needs to understand that if it is one-sided only and all the pressure is on Israel only, then that way doesn’t contribute and might cause an opposite effect. The efforts need to be directed to both sides.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s culture and national infrastructure ministers made similar comments in radio interviews Thursday.

The fate of Jerusalem is the most explosive issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and immediately annexed the area, a move that never has been recognized internationally. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of an independent state that includes the neighboring West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip to Israel’s south.

Over the years, Israel has built a ring of Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem to cement its control over the area. Some 180,000 Israelis now live in these neighborhoods, which the international community views as illegal settlements.

The Palestinians have refused to return to the negotiating table until Israel freezes construction in all settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has offered only to slow construction in the West Bank.

There was no immediate Palestinian reaction, but in neighboring Jordan, King Abdullah II warned Israel that it is playing with fire over its settlement policy and that the Jewish state must decide whether it wants peace or war.

He urged Israel to take “tangible actions” toward ending settlements and resuming peace talks.

The crisis with the United States erupted earlier this month when Israel announced during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that it plans to build 1,600 new apartments in a Jewish neighborhood of east Jerusalem.

Mr. Biden condemned the move, and plans to resume peace talks through U.S. mediation were put on hold. The United States has asked Israel to cancel the plan.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Washington visit this week was meant as a fence-mending mission. But he again refused to soften Israel’s line on east Jerusalem — a position that was underscored by an announcement from Jerusalem city officials that they had approved 20 new apartments for a Jewish housing project in the heart of an Arab neighborhood.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office oversees approval of new housing construction, pledged in a newspaper interview to keep on building in east Jerusalem.

“I thank God I have been given the opportunity to be the minister who approves the construction of thousands of housing units in Jerusalem,” he said.

Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report.

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