NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hecklers interrupted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to a prominent American Jewish group on Monday, the same day his government said it would move ahead with hundreds of new housing units in disputed east Jerusalem.
The five Jewish-American and Israeli protesters stood up and held banners denouncing the settlements. Sheriff's deputies escorted them out to a chorus of shouts and boos, and they were released without charges. One audience member took a protest banner left behind and ripped it with his teeth.
Netanyahu accused the protesters of joining those who believe "Israel is guilty until proven guilty."
"The greatest success of our detractors is when Jews start believing that themselves. We've seen that today," the prime minister told the assembly.
The prime minister's visit comes at a delicate moment in Mideast peacemaking, when the U.S. is working hard to get Israel to slow down settlement activity so that fledgling negotiations can have a chance.
Israel's Interior Ministry sought to play down the significance of the new Jerusalem housing, saying actual construction could be years away. But the announcement cast a shadow over Netanyahu's visit, during which he is conferring with U.S. officials over how to revive peace talks.
The hecklers, members of the Young Leadership Institute of Jewish Voice for Peace, stood up and shouted at different times during Netanyahu's speech to the Jewish Federations of North America.
Rae Abileah, a 28-year-old protester from San Francisco, shouted "the settlements betray Jewish values" as she was grabbed by Orleans Parish sheriff's deputies and pulled out of the hall. She said a man sitting in front of her tried to stuff a seat cover into her mouth to silence her. Audience members pushed a male protester and cursed at him after he interrupted the prime minister's speech.
In his address, Netanyahu said Palestinian leaders need to stop "making preconditions."
He said Israel is eager to talk peace, but that it was counterproductive to "waste our time arguing about marginal issues that will not affect the peace math in any way."
That comment was likely a reference to his contention that much of the settlement activity — including the east Jerusalem projects discussed Monday — is taking place on lands that will probably remain in Israeli hands in any final peace deal.
Palestinians contend that all Israeli building on lands they claim for a future state is unacceptable. They are threatening to walk away from peace talks, restarted just two months ago, unless Israel agrees to renew curbs on West Bank settlement construction that expired in September.
An Israeli Interior Ministry official, Efrat Orbach, said Monday his government was moving ahead with plans to build nearly 1,300 apartments in east Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to place their future capital. The announcement drew a harsh response from the State Department, which called it "deeply disappointing" and "counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties."
Netanyahu met with Vice President Joe Biden on Sunday and later this week will speak with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The U.S., along with much of the international community, opposes Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — captured territories claimed by the Palestinians.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the latest Israeli move was a sign of bad faith. He said the Palestinians had hoped Netanyahu had gone to the U.S. "to make a choice for peace and not settlements."
In New Orleans, Netanyahu said Israel would not compromise on its security.
"We don't want security on a piece of paper, we want security on the ground — real security," Netanyahu said to applause. "I am willing to make mutual compromise for genuine peace with the Palestinians, but I will not gamble with the security of the Jewish state ... We want to make sure we don't walk out and Iran walks in."
The Israeli leader repeatedly lashed out at Iran. "The greatest danger facing Israel and the world is the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran," he said.
He praised the Obama administration for pushing sanctions against Iran, but said Tehran needed to fear a military strike before it would stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"There is no doubt that these pressures are putting strong economic pressures on the Iranian regime," he said. "But we have yet to see any sign that the tyrants of Tehran are reconsidering their pursuit of nuclear weapons."
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said international sanctions were "biting more deeply" than the Iranians anticipated.
"I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to," Gates said in Australia on Monday. "At this point we continue to believe that the political and economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact on Iran."
Associated Press writer Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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