U.S. veep spurs Mideast peace process amid settlement flare-up

09:47, March 10, 2010      

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Visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday threw his weight behind the newly-renewed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, yet two newly-announced Jewish settlement expansion projects have thrown his efforts into grave doubt.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden before their meeting at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Xinhua/GPO)

"I'm very pleased that you and the Palestinian leadership have agreed to launch indirect talks. We hope that these talks will lead and they must lead eventually to negotiations and direct discussions between the parties," said Biden at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The veep, the highest-ranking U.S. official setting foot on the volatile land since U.S. President Barack Obama took office early last year, voiced his expectations a day after Obama's special envoy George Mitchell wrapped up a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and officially announced that the two sides have agreed to conduct indirect negotiations with himself acting as the intermediary.

"We are at a moment of real opportunity. I hope the beginning of indirect or proximity talks is a vehicle by which we can begin to allay that layer of mistrust that has built over the last several years," Biden said earlier in the day ahead of a meeting with President Shimon Peres, adding that "the interests of both the Palestinians and the Israeli people ... are actually very much more in line than they are in opposition."

"The goal is obviously to resolve the final status issues to achieve a two-state solution with Israel and a Palestine living side by side in peace and security," he stressed, adding that this vision serves Israel's long-term security interests.

Noting that both sides have taken peace-oriented moves, including a partial freeze of settlement construction on the Israeli side and an overhaul of institutions and security forces on the Palestinian side, Biden said that "an historic peace is going to require both parties to make some historically bold commitments."

For their parts, Biden's hosts thanked the U.S. government for its peace-making efforts and reiterated Israel's commitment to reaching peace with the Palestinians and the whole Arab world.

"I'm pleased that these efforts are beginning to bear fruit and we have to be persistent and purposeful in making sure that we get to those direct negotiations that will enable us to resolve this conflict," Netanyahu said to his guest.

The commencement of indirect talks ended a 15-month deadlock since negotiations broke down when the Jewish state launched a destructive military offensive against the Gaza Strip in late 2008, which left about 1,400 Palestinians dead in the coastal enclave along with 13 Israeli fatalities.

It also marked the first time for the two Middle East neighbors to conduct peace negotiations since Obama and Netanyahu took office in early 2009.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) shakes hands with visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a joint statement at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Xinhua/GPO)

Yet the prospect remains gloomy, as the Israeli Defense Ministry announced on Monday, just hours before Biden landed, that it had approved a plan to build 112 new housing units in a settlement in the West Bank, and as the Interior Ministry declared on Tuesday, just hours after Biden held warm talks with Peres and Netanyahu, that it had greenlighted a project to construct 1,600 new homes in a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

The authorities claimed that neither of the projects contradicts the partial settlement construction freeze it announced late last year, which excludes building projects that had already been approved before the moratorium and construction activities in East Jerusalem. The defense ministry said that the West Bank project was permitted by the previous administration.

Although Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai told local media that the timing of the East Jerusalem project "has nothing to do with the visit of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden," these two announcements are nothing less than a slap in the face at the visiting U.S. vice president, and are set to embarrass him when he travels to the West Bank on Wednesday for talks with Palestinian leaders, who have already challenged U.S. peace-making efforts due to continued Israeli settlement expansion despite U.S. pressure.

In a statement released from Washington, Biden condemned the latest expansion plan, saying that "this announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict."

"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel," Biden said, while urging the parties to "build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them."

Netanyahu has not commented on the latest development. Local news service Ynet quoted sources close to him as saying that the premier was taken by surprise by the announcement, as he had not been informed of the decision beforehand.

The infuriated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas termed the Israeli move as a "provocative and predetermined Israeli escalation," and asked the Arab League, which expressed support for the proximity talks earlier this month, to reassess their stance.

His spokesman Nabil Abu Rdineh warned that "the decision to build 1,600 units, settlement units in occupied Jerusalem, is a dangerous decision, liable to torpedo negotiations and make U.S. efforts fail before they have even started."

The Obama administration has long been trying to push the two sides back to the negotiation table to seek a solution to their decades-old feud. Yet gaping gaps on the issues of settlements and East Jerusalem blocked their return to the peace track, and even once strained the U.S.-Israeli ties.

Under mounting U.S. pressure, the Netanyahu administration announced in last November a 10-month moratorium on new construction projects in West Bank settlements, which Israel dubbed a goodwill gesture aimed to help resume peace talks.

Yet the Palestinians dismissed the move as insincere, and have stressed that no talks are possible before Israel completely halts Jewish construction both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the Arab-dominated section of the holy city which they claim as the capital of their future state.

Yet in a U.S.-pressured turn, the Palestinian leadership on Sunday reluctantly gave Abbas the green light to follow a U.S. proposal and enter indirect talks with Israel, yet they meanwhile reiterated that Israel must totally freeze settlement expansion both in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem before any possible resumption of direct talks.

Source: Xinhua
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