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Obama invites defiant Netanyahu for talks

Israel rebuffs US demand to halt settlement construction

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcoming with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (left) during a meeting in Jerusalem yesterday. Photo: Jim Hollander/AFP.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcoming with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (left) during a meeting in Jerusalem yesterday. Photo: Jim Hollander/AFP.

US President Barack Obama yesterday invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet him at the White House, even as the Israeli leader rebuffed a key US demand to halt settlement construction in east Jerusalem.

The invitation for tomorrow's meeting to discuss Middle East peace efforts was handed to Mr Netanyahu by Mr Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell at the start of a meeting yesterday, Mr Netanyahu's office said.

Mr Netanyahu is meeting US officials and Jewish leaders in Washington.

Earlier, Mr Netanyahu vowed there would be no halt to settlement building in east Jerusalem, but in an apparent concession to the US, he said Israel was willing to widen the scope of planned indirect talks with the Palestinians.

His comments on settlements were quickly denounced by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas as unhelpful to attempts to restart talks. Mr Abbas also condemned the recent killing of four Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli forces.

"Our policy on Jerusalem is the same as all previous governments of Israel for the last 42 years, it has not changed," Mr Netanyahu said ahead of yesterday's weekly Cabinet meeting.

"As far as we are concerned building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv and this is something we have made very clear to the US administration."

The hardline premier said he had spelled out his position in a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had demanded a series of Israeli steps to end a crisis over settlement-building in the Holy City.

Israel and the US have been at loggerheads for the past two weeks after the Jewish state announced plans to build 1,600 new homes for settlers in east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.

Mr Netanyahu's office said he had suggested "mutual confidence-building measures" that could be carried out by Israel and the Palestinians.

He also said yesterday that Israel had agreed that all issues could be discussed at planned indirect - or "proximity" - talks that were delayed by the settlement row, reportedly another US demand.

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