updated 4/26/2010 4:06:15 PM ET 2010-04-26T20:06:15

President Barack Obama assured a top Israeli official Monday that the U.S. has an unshakable commitment to Israel's security despite recent tension over Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem.

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Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama spoke with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was at the White House for a meeting with U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones. Gibbs says Obama told Barak he is determined to achieve comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Obama's comments come as the Israeli government said it had effectively frozen construction of settlements in disputed East Jerusalem. U.S. officials had no immediate comment on that announcement.

Settlement building has been a major sticking point since Israel infuriated Washington last month by announcing a major new housing development in East Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley wouldn't discuss what Israel was telling the United States about Jewish construction.

"We have asked both sides to take steps to rebuild trust and to create momentum so that we can see advances in" peace talks, Crowley told reporters. "We're not going to go into details about what we've asked them to do, but obviously this is an important issue in the atmosphere to see the advancement of peace."

Meanwhile, Jones issued an apology for a joke he had made about a "Jewish merchant" during a speech in Washington last week, saying in a statement that, "I wish that I had not made this off-the-cuff joke at the top of my remarks, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it. It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct."

The joke was not included in the official White House transcript of the speech. Gibbs said that because Jones' speech was not a presidential event, a stenographer was not present.

Gibbs said he didn't believe Jones' joke came up during Monday's meeting with Barak.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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