The White House says it is seeking clarification of Israel's plans to build 20 new apartments in east Jerusalem. The construction plan in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was first reported by Ynet on Tuesday evening.
US special envoy George Mitchell arrived at Netanyahu's hotel at 8 pm (Israel time) for final meetings in a bid to reach an agreement. His first met with the prime minister's associates, Attorney Yitzhak Molcho and Ron Dermer and then with Netanyahu. Molcho and Dermer also met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's advisor, Dennis Ross.
Netanyahu has canceled planned interviews with American media and is expected to leave Washington on Thursday morning.
Spokesman Tommy Vietor says the White House continues to believe that Israeli building in Jerusalem is destructive to the Middle East peace process. He says the United States is urging both Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from acts that could undermine trust as the Obama administration looks to jump-start the stalled peace process.
Vietor would not say whether President Barack Obama and Netanyahu discussed the specific building project in their meetings at the White House late Tuesday.
An aide to Netanyahu says the prime minister was caught off-guard by Wednesday's announcement of the apartment projects.
The owner of the land in the Shepherd Hotel compound in Sheikh Jarrah is Florida Jew Irwin Moskowitz. The principled approval for the construction plan, which includes the establishment of 20 housing units and a parking lot, was granted by the Jerusalem zoning committee in July of last year, angering American officials.
However, the construction plan received official approval this past Thursday, allowing the building process at the site to go ahead at any time now.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem city hall announced Tuesday evening the promotion of a comprehensive plan for east Jerusalem. The initiative will include an increase in the commercial and hotel zones in the area, as well as the addition of another 100 housing units earmarked for Arabs.
Bone of contention. Shepherd Hotel compound (Photo: Reuters)
After almost 24 hours of silence, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday evening addressed Tuesday night's meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. Gibbs said that Obama had asked Netanyahu for confidence-building steps toward the Palestinians to help launch indirect talks, but that differences remain between Israel and the United States.
Gibbs said Wednesday the meetings were "honest and straightforward." He would not discuss the substance of the meetings, nor would he say whether the new building projects in east Jerusalem were specifically discussed.
UN chief: Building must stop
"The president asked the prime minister to take steps to build confidence for proximity talks so that progress can be made toward comprehensive peace," Gibbs told reporters. "There are areas of agreement and there are areas of disagreement," he said.
The American administration clarified that there was no plan for another meeting between Netanyahu and Obama and that the prime minister was expected to meet with the president's aides. Obama on Wednesday telephoned German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and consulted with them about the Iranian issue and the situation in the Middle East.
Netanyahu in Washington. Mystery surrounding visit (Photo: AFP)
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Sheikh Jarrah building plan as well Wednesday, defining it as "illegal". He said that the 20 housing units approved were "in the heart of an Arab neighborhood".
"The settlements are illegal," Ban told reporters after a closed-door session with the Security Council. "This must stop."
Israeli and American teams have been trying to reach an understanding throughout the day, in a bid to conclude the prime minister's visit to the United States with a joint message, which would make it possible to launch the proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The mystery surrounding Netanyahu's trip increases in light of the fact that for the past two days the Prime Minister's Office has been unable to provide details about the visit's itinerary, as they have not been briefed about it by the Americans. In diplomatic terms, this is an unusual situation.
The feeling in the White House is that Netanyahu did not deliver on his promises, and that the meeting between the two leaders concluded with a deafening silence and a tense atmosphere.
Reuters contributed to this report