16 Mar 2010

US envoy George Mitchell postpones (indefinitely?) Israel visit

At long last, Israel's butt of jokes is showing signs of annoyance...

Despite the latest batch of denials coming from the former First lady (no, I'm not referring to the much publicised incident of her husband's misdemeanours!), the strain of the two most trusted allies remains as the... US envoy, George Mitchell, postpones a visit to Israel amid a continuing row over Israel's decision to build more Jewish homes in Arab East Jerusalem. Mr Mitchell had been due to meet President Shimon Peres on Tuesday but the trip has now been put off.

The building announcement - made as US Vice-President Joe Biden visited last week to try to kick-start stalled peace talks - angered Washington. Tension remains high in Jerusalem, with a number of clashes on Tuesday.

'No curbs'

Mr Mitchell had been due in Israel to try to set up the resumption of indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The renewal of talks had been agreed before Mr Biden's visit, but Israel's announcement that it planned to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem left it in tatters.

The office of the Israeli president confirmed that it had been notified that Mr Mitchell would not arrive in Israel on Tuesday and "thus the planned meeting today at 5.30 pm between President Peres and Special Envoy Mitchell will not occur".

Mr Mitchell's visit will be rescheduled for an as yet undetermined time, US and Israeli officials indicated.

The US says it is still awaiting a "formal" response from Israel to the settlement row and has urged Israel to show it is committed to Middle East peace efforts.

Although he has apologised for the timing of the settlement announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stood by Israel's policy, telling parliament on Monday there can be "no curbs" on Jewish building in Jerusalem.

"The building of those Jewish neighbourhoods in no way hurt the Arabs of East Jerusalem and did not come at their expense," he said.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio that calls to halt Israeli settlement building were "unreasonable".

The BBC's Paul Wood in Jerusalem says there seems to be an impasse - if Mr Netanyahu caves in and cancels the new settlements, the stability of his government may be in doubt; if he does not, it is hard to see how the peace talks can take place.

On Monday, Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was quoted by Israeli media as saying that ties between the US and Israel were at their lowest point since 1975.

'Day of rage'

Tensions in East Jerusalem have risen in recent days with the settlements issue and the rededication of a synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, which Palestinians have condemned as provocative.

“ This synagogue will be a prelude to violence and religious fanaticism and extremism ”
Hatem Abdel Qader, Fatah Jerusalem spokesman

Palestinian protesters burned tyres and threw rocks, while police fired stun grenades and tear gas, as rioting broke out in a number of areas, including the Shu'fat refugee camp, al-Eisaweyah and the Qalandia checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank.

Israeli police said they had deployed 3,000 officers across the city and about 15 Palestinians had been arrested. A number of protesters were injured, Palestinian medical sources said.

The reopening of the twice-destroyed Hurva synagogue, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which Palestinians seek as part of a future capital, triggered a backlash.

Hatem Abdel Qader, Jerusalem affairs spokesman for the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said: "This synagogue will be a prelude to violence and religious fanaticism and extremism."

Militant group Hamas had declared Tuesday a "day of rage" against the move.

Thousands of people turned out in Gaza on Tuesday to protest against the rededication of the synagogue, not far from the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest site, AFP news agency reports.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent, Paul Wood, says the call by some Palestinian officials for people to defend the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, site of the al-Aqsa mosque, comes amid rumours of plans by Jewish extremists to take control of the area.

He says that although the clashes so far are small-scale, no-one has forgotten how the last Palestinian intifada - or uprising - began over the holy sites in Jerusalem.

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