Karin Laub
The Statesman
March 10, 2010 - 1:00am

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday the Palestinians deserve a "viable" independent state with contiguous territory, seeking to reassure them of U.S. support after Israel announced plans to expand a Jewish neighborhood in disputed east Jerusalem.

The Israeli move has overshadowed Biden's visit, meant to promote a new round of U.S.-led negotiations, and drawn Palestinian accusations that Israel is not serious about peace. Israel apologized for embarrassing Biden with the timing of its announcement, but made clear it has no intention of reversing its plan.

Capping a day of meetings with Palestinian leaders, Biden told his hosts that the U.S. is committed to brokering a final peace deal — something that has eluded U.S. leaders for decades.

"The United States pledges to play an active as well as a sustainable role in these talks," Biden said. He stressed the Palestinians deserve an independent state that is "viable and contiguous," meaning the territory should not be broken up by Israeli settlement enclaves.

It was a clear message to Israel that the U.S. expects a broad withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a deal.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has given only conditional support for Palestinian independence and signaled that he wants to retain control of key parts of the West Bank, including Jewish settlements. The U.S., along with the Palestinians, consider settlements built on disputed lands to be obstacles to peace.

The Israeli plan to build 1,600 new homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo was an embarrassing setback for Biden, who arrived Monday hoping to build on an agreement by both sides to resume indirect negotiations through the mediation of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

The resumption of talks ends a 14-month deadlock and marked the Obama administration's first substantive accomplishment in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

Standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden reiterated his condemnation of the Israeli plan and urged both sides to refrain from actions "that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks."

"It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations, and not to complicate them," he said.

Abbas, however, said Israel's continued settlement construction, especially in Jerusalem, threatens the negotiations before they get off the ground.

"We call on Israel to cancel these decisions," Abbas said. "I call on the Israeli government not to lose a chance to make peace. I call on them to halt settlement building and to stop imposing facts on the ground, and to give the efforts of the Obama administration and Senator Mitchell the chance to succeed."

The fate of Jewish settlements is one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some 270,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Israelis living in Jewish neighborhoods built in east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim both areas — captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as parts of a future state.

The dispute over the settlements has been a key reason for the deadlock in peace talks over the past year. Abbas has insisted on a full freeze on settlement construction as a condition for resuming talks.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has imposed a partial slowdown on West Bank construction but allowed building in east Jerusalem to continue. Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, and Netanyahu has said he will never share control of the holy city.

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office announced the latest construction plans in east Jerusalem, apologized Wednesday for disrupting Biden's visit. But he said the problem was merely about timing, not substance.

"We had no intention, no desire, to offend or taunt an important man like the vice president during his visit," Yishai told Israel Radio. "I am very sorry for the embarrassment ... Next time we need to take timing into account."

The Israeli announcement drew an unusually harsh condemnation from Biden, who pointedly arrived 90 minutes late to his scheduled dinner with Netanyahu in an apparent snub Tuesday night.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the Palestinians appreciated "the strong statement of condemnation" by the U.S. administration.

Israel's opposition Kadima party said it is planning a no-confidence vote in the prime minister in parliament for "destroying" the Biden visit.

The new construction plan also drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt, Israel's closest ally in the Arab world, and from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"This is absurd. It is disdainful of the Arab and the Palestinian positions and the American mediation," said Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

Israeli media lambasted the move, calling it an embarrassment.

"A slap heard round the world," read the headline of a front-page commentary in Israel's Haaretz daily.


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