Matti Friedman
The Statesman
March 12, 2010 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM — Israel is moving to amend the country's planning procedures on sensitive political decisions following an embarrassing diplomatic flap during a visit this week by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a Cabinet minister said Friday.

The change endorsed by a parliamentary legislation committee Thursday will require a representative of the prime minister to be present when development plans are approved. The change aims to ensure the country's leader is not caught off guard by politically charged decisions, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was by the approval of 1,600 new homes for Jews in east Jerusalem during Biden's visit.

Both Biden and the Palestinians sharply condemned the Israeli settlement decision.

Netanyahu apologized for the timing, though not the substance, of the announcement.

Biden's trip this week, aimed at renewing Mideast peace efforts as well as repairing Israel-U.S. ties strained precisely by disagreements over Israeli settlement construction, was overshadowed by the Israeli move.

Netanyahu said he was not aware of the decision — announced by Israel's Interior Ministry — before it was made public, and released a statement saying he had reprimanded the Cabinet minister responsible. There has been no indication he took further action against those involved.

The proposed amendment to planning procedures was initiated by the country's welfare minister, Isaac Herzog of the centrist Labor Party. "This initiative is necessary to prevent similar mishaps in the future," Herzog said in a statement released by his office Friday.

The amendment must still be approved by parliament.

Israel's announcement of more east Jerusalem construction angered Palestinians, who had agreed only days earlier to begin indirect peace talks with Netanyahu's government, dropping an earlier demand for a full settlement freeze before talks begin. Netanyahu has agreed only to a limited slowdown that does not include east Jerusalem, which Israel sees as part of its capital.

The international community does not recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem — captured in the 1967 Mideast war — and the Palestinians see that part of the city as their own future capital.

Jerusalem has been particularly tense in recent weeks. Palestinians have clashed with police after Friday prayers to protest Israel's inclusion of two West Bank shrines on a list of national heritage sites. The move's practical implications are not clear, but the Palestinians see it as a provocation.

Seeking to head off further unrest, police limited access to the city's holiest site Friday, and Israel's military sealed off the West Bank for 48 hours, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel.

Police allowed only men over 50 to pray Friday at the shrine at the center of the disturbances — the Jerusalem compound Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary. There were no limitations on women.

Only 4,000 Muslim worshippers prayed at the compound Friday, perhaps a tenth of the usual number, said Azzam Khatib, head of the Islamic clerical body in charge of administering the compound. He called the Israeli restrictions "unacceptable."

The military said the closure would end at midnight Saturday.

In Gaza, ruled by the Islamic militants of Hamas, Israeli aircraft struck twice early Friday, retaliating for rocket fire into Israel on Thursday. No one was hurt in any of the incidents.


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