U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has condemned Israel's plans to expand a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem by building 1,600 more homes in a disputed neighborhood there.
The expansion plan, announced by Israel's Interior Ministry on March 9, is overshadowing Biden's visit today to the West Bank, where he met with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Israel's surprise announcement came just hours after the Palestinians had reluctantly agreed to indirect talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- so-called proximity talks to be brokered by U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell in the months ahead.
Speaking in Ramallah today after his talks with Abbas, Biden said the timing and substance of Israel's announcement was precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust that is needed to get the Mideast peace process back on track.
"It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations and not to complicate them," Biden said. "Yesterday, the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as produce profitable negotiations. That is why I immediately condemned the action."
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad today welcomed Biden's condemnation of the Israeli expansion plan.
"We definitely think this is a moment of great challenge to the effort led by the United States to get the political process going again," Fayyad said. "We definitely appreciate the strong statements of condemnation by the administration vis-a-vis this action, which definitely undermines confidence in the prospects of the political process which we all are working very hard to see relaunched."
Biden had hoped his visit to the West Bank today would help ease Palestinian doubts about the resumption of indirect talks with Israel. Instead, the Israeli expansion plan became the main item on the agenda of Abbas's meeting with Biden.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat says the Israeli expansion plan has become the main item on the agenda of Abbas's meeting with Biden today.
Erekat said the Israeli government is "making it almost impossible" for the Palestinian Authority, the United States and the international community to "take a one centimeter step" toward reviving the peace process.
Adnan al-Husseini, the Palestinian Authority-appointed governor of Jerusalem, suggested that the indirect talks are now in doubt. He told Reuters on March 9 that there is "no hope" that any results will be achieved.
"We are very sad to hear that the Israeli government took the decision to start building 1,600 residential units in East Jerusalem while the country is receiving the vice president of the United States, and Mr. Mitchell, to start the indirect negotiations," Husseini said.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned the Israeli plan, saying that such settlements are illegal under international law and undermine efforts toward establishing a viable peace process between the two sides.
The new construction plan also has drawn sharp criticism from Egypt, Israel's closest ally in the Arab world.
Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, called Israel's announcement "absurd." Zaki said the move is "disdainful of the Arab and the Palestinian positions and the American mediation."
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, Qatar's premier and foreign minister, says representatives from Arab states are meeting with Arab League chief Amr Musa today to craft a unified response to the Israeli announcement.
Israeli media have described the settlement expansion plan as an embarrassment for Israel. The headline of a front-page commentary in Israel's "Haaretz" daily newspaper today calls the move "a slap heard round the world."
Faced with such backlash from inside Israel and abroad, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai today apologized for the timing of the announcement as Biden was meeting with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
Yishai said his ministry had "no intention, no desire, to offend or taunt" Biden during his visit and that he was "sorry for the embarrassment." Nevertheless, Yishai said Israel would not reverse plans to expand the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem.
"Of course, there was certainly no intention to provoke anyone, and certainly not to come along and hurt the vice president of the United States," Yishai said. "The regional committee gives initial approval for projects, or approves plans, in a regular and continuous manner. The Ramat Shlomo project has been in planning procedures for several years. It was initially approved [on Tuesday], which means final approval for the project will take another few months, if it is approved in the committee.
"About the timing, I agree with you that the timing of the announcement should have been in another two or three weeks -- not on a day like this -- in order not to hurt the Americans and not to provoke. But it was scheduled really as a procedural matter and unintentionally."
U.S. President Barack Obama initially called for a complete freeze on the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. But Obama did not take Israel to task last November when Netanyahu's government agreed only to a 10-month moratorium on the start of new Israeli construction in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has refused to stop building in East Jerusalem, which was captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed by Israel. Netanyau says Israel will never allow Jerusalem to be partitioned.
The international community, including the United States, does not recognize Israel's sovereignty claims over East Jerusalem.
compiled from agency reports