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U.S. envoy in Israel amid settlement dispute

From Kevin Flower and Elise Labott, CNN
Benjamin Netanyahu's comments are not likely to ease the rift with the United States.
Benjamin Netanyahu's comments are not likely to ease the rift with the United States.
  • U.S., Israel have been at odds over East Jerusalem construction
  • Israeli premier says "there will be no freeze" on building
  • Palestinian leader hesitant to rejoin talks without commitment on settlements

(CNN) -- The Obama administration's special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, returned to the region Thursday, even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized that "there will be no freeze" on construction opposed by Palestinians and the United States.

Mitchell's visit comes in the wake of talks this week that included U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials.

"At the end of those discussions last night, we thought it was fruitful for George to travel to the region," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. He provided no details.

The talks, conducted in Israel, included Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council and David Hale, one of Mitchell's deputies, Crowley said. It was not clear who represented Israel and the Palestinians.

In an interview Thursday on Israel's Channel 2, Netanyahu said "there will be no freeze in Jerusalem."

The United States and Israel have been at odds over Israeli plans to build residences in East Jerusalem.

"This is what we are arguing about," Netanyahu said. "They are saying we have to stop building, and I say as prime minister of all the Israelis, there are red lines. This is a red line. I won't cross it. This is not a dispute with America."

Asked for a response to Netanyahu's comments, Crowley said, "I don't think that they necessarily are new.

"We understand that the Israelis have a long-standing position," he said. "But as [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] has said repeatedly, the status quo is not sustainable."

Crowley said the United States received "a number of ideas from the Israelis" in response to "specific steps" that the Obama administration asked them to take.

"Some of them address the concerns that we laid out in the initial conversation between Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu a few weeks ago," Crowley said. "Have they done everything that we'd like to see them do? No. But this is why ... we're continuing this conversation."

Crowley said Mitchell would meet with both Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Senior State Department officials, however, said they didn't expect any major breakthroughs from the talks. They noted that Netanyahu does not see any incentive to take action on settlement activity in East Jerusalem until negotiations start, and Abbas is tentative about holding talks with Israel without any commitments on settlements, especially given Arab League demands that settlement activity stop before negotiations begin.

Netanyahu's comments are not likely to make ending the rift between the United States and Israel over East Jerusalem construction any easier.

In March, the Israeli government announced the construction of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem as U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting the Jewish state. The announcement outraged the Obama administration and led to the Palestinian withdrawal from agreed-upon indirect negotiations with Israel.

In a visit later that month to the United States, Netanyahu was presented with a set of concessions the White House wanted to see the Israel make in an effort to restart negotiations with the Palestinians.

Neither government detailed what the exact nature of the concessions were, but sources on both sides said a halt in East Jerusalem construction was among the demands from the Obama administration.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Netanyahu had informed the White House over the weekend that Israel would not stop building in East Jerusalem.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli government, would not comment on the report other than to say that "the talks with the Americans are ongoing."

"We are working hard to find a framework that will allow for the resumption of talks," Regev said of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six Day War in 1967 and considers it part of its sovereign capital, a claim not recognized by the international community. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the future capital of their state.