Obama and Netanyahu in low-key meetings

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in an unusual pair of low-profile meetings at the White House amid a serious dispute about settlement construction.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in an unusual pair of low-profile meetings at the White House amid a serious dispute about settlement construction.

In a break with custom that seemed linked to the crisis complicating US-Israeli relations, reporters were not invited to see them shake hands and begin their talks.

It is highly unusual for a visiting ally not to be seen with the president, either for photographs or statements.

At issue is Israel's announcement two weeks ago, as Vice President Joe Biden visited, that it will build 1,600 new apartments in east Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city.

Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have delayed new US-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu initially conferred for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office - a half-hour longer than scheduled. After that meeting, Mr Obama retired to the residence while Mr Netanyahu stayed behind in the White House to consult with his staff in the Roosevelt Room, a White House official said.

Mr Netanyahu then asked for a second meeting with Mr Obama, who came back downstairs to the Oval Office for another 35 minutes of talks with the prime minister, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomatic issue.

Although they met for a total of two hours, the White House did not issue a formal statement on what was discussed in either meeting, another break with custom. Israeli officials also had no comment.

Israel unveiled a grandiose plan for hotels, businesses and new housing for Palestinians in the centre of east Jerusalem, but the announcement only brought Palestinian suspicion that it was an unacceptable payoff for new building in Jewish neighbourhoods.

The plan calls for developing a large area across from the Old City wall for tourism and commerce, as well as building 1,000 additional apartments.

On Capitol Hill, Mr Netanyahu received a warm public reception from Congress, with a top Democrat and Republican joining to praise a leader who has refused to back down in a disagreement the White House says threatens new peace talks.

The bipartisan welcome underscored the breadth of congressional support for Israel even when a US president wants to keep his distance. It pointed to the limited options, beyond verbal rebukes, that the Mr Obama administration faces in pressuring the Jewish state.

"We in Congress stand by Israel," the leader of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, assured Mr Netanyahu at an all-smiles appearance before the cameras. "In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."

The Jerusalem municipality approved 20 new apartments for Jews in east Jerusalem in a move that could stir a new diplomatic crisis.

The new project is funded by an American millionaire. It calls for tearing down part of an old hotel, the Shepherd, and building 20 apartments and a three-level underground parking lot instead.

The Jerusalem municipality said today that the final go ahead was given a week ago.

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