Tags: Israel | US | peace | tatters

Obama Mideast Diplomacy in Tatters as Palestinians Pull Out of Indirect Peace Talks

Thursday, 11 March 2010 09:20 AM

JERUSALEM - U.S Vice President Joe Biden tried to put the furor over the stalled peace process and the announcement of plans to build 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo behind him, saying during a speech Thursday at Tel Aviv University that he condemned the move because as a friend he was compelled to "deliver the hardest truth."

After Palestinians and Arabs decided Wednesday to cut indirect talks over the settlement issue, Biden implored them to return, saying negotiations cannot be delayed 'because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our differences'

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided not enter indirect peace talks with Israel as planned, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said, due to the approval of the new housing in east Jerusalem.

“The Palestinian president has decided that he does not intend to enter negotiations at this stage,” Moussa said at a press conference in Cairo.

Biden condemned the housing plan for a second time in 24 hours on Wednesday, this time standing in Ramallah next to Abbas.

“Yesterday the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem undermined that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as have profitable negotiations. That is why I immediately condemned the action,” Biden said after meeting Abbas.

The vice president added that the US “will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did.”

But on Thursday Biden stressed he remained a friend of Israel, adding that he appreciated the clarifications he received on the matter from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyhau.

He opened the speech by stressing the importance of US-Israel friendship and Washington's commitment to the security of the Jewish state, saying that "US President Barack Obama and myself know that the US has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel."

Biden said that he realized that construction in east Jerusalem "is a very touchy subject in Israel," but because Israel's decision to advance the housing project, in his view, "undermined the trust required to conduct the negotiations, I – at the request of President Obama – condemned it immediately."

After pausing for a moment to listen to the applause that accompanied these words, Biden explained how he, "such a strong supporter of Israel," could speak out so strongly.

"Quite frankly, folks, only a friend can deliver the hardest truth," he said.

"I appreciate, by the way, the response given by the Prime Minister, who today is putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence that sort of event, and who clarified that the beginning of actual construction of this particular project would likely take several years. That is significant, because it gives negotiations the time to resolve this as well as other issues."

Biden said that the announcement of the plan was interpreted in the West Bank as meaning that the 1,600 units would be constructed immediately.

"Look, folks, as we move on, I promise you this, the US will continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that will inflame tension or prejudice the actions of these talks," the US vice president said.

Just prior to Biden's speech, the Prime Minister's Office, in what was apparently a move coordinated with the US, put out a statement saying that Netanyahu summoned "Interior Minister Eli Yishai and expressed his displeasure at the timing of the announcement of another stage in the planning process of a Jerusalem building project."

"In light of the ongoing disagreement between Israel and the US on building in Jerusalem," the statement read, Netanyahu "said there was no need to advance the planning process this week and instructed Interior Minister Yishai to adopt procedures to prevent such an incident from recurring."

According to the statement, Netanyahu spoke to Biden and "expressed his regret over the unfortunate timing. The Prime Minister informed the Vice President that this specific project had moved through various planning stages over several years. The final approval process will in all likelihood take more than a year and the beginning of actual construction would likely take several years."

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the US vice president called for a two-states solution, saying that peace with Palestinians is "profoundly" in Israel's interest, and stressing that Washington is committed to Israel's security.

"From my experience, the one precondition for progress is that the rest of the world knows this - there is no space between the US and Israel when it comes to security - none. That's the only time that progress has been made," he said.

Biden went on to say that the "status-quo is not sustainable," because Israel could not remain a Jewish state while the Arab population continues to grow and a Palestinian state has not been established.

Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are both real partners for peace, Biden said, urging Israel to seize the opportunity to achieve real peace with the Palestinians.

The Arab League on Wednesday night recommended withdrawing support for indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis due to the Ramat Shlomo announcement. The league’s Arab Peace Initiative committee called for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to reconsider their support for the talks they extended on March 3.

The committee said Israel’s announcement on the 1,600 new housing units showed it was not serious about negotiating, and that if the move was not halted immediately the talks would have “no meaning.”

One PA official said that Biden and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell have reassured Abbas that Washington would continue to exert heavy pressure on Israel to prevent it from taking “provocative” measures such as the construction of new houses in east Jerusalem or the West Bank.

Abbas, who expressed outrage at the Israeli move, said following the meeting with Biden it was a “severe blow” to US efforts to re-launch the peace talks in the Middle East, and called for the plans to be revoked.

One Israeli government official said that this was unlikely, since the Interior Ministry body that approved the plan had statutory powers that the political echelon could not overrule.

The official – reflecting the position inside the Prime Minister’s Office that the timing of the decision was unfortunate and a mistake, but that the decision itself to build within Jerusalem’s municipal borders was legitimate – said that Netanyahu has said from the outset that building in east Jerusalem would continue.

Building in east Jerusalem has been the core of the disagreement between Israel and the PA for months, the official said, with Abbas calling for a total halt to all construction, and Netanyahu refusing to do so.

Netanyahu was quoted as telling ministers in Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting that Israel would continue building in Jerusalem, and that the problem was not with the essence of the decision, but the timing.

Netanyahu spoke about the matter earlier in the day with Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said he did not know about the decision beforehand and that it was strictly a technical and procedural matter.

Netanyahu told Yishai the decision had caused him a great deal of embarrassment with Biden.

In an effort to prevent the recurrence of such an incident, Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser to issue new directives to the cabinet ministers to ensure he would in the future be informed in advance of any decisions that could either lead to public disturbances or impact on diplomatic or security matters.

Despite the controversy, Biden, after his meeting with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, urged both Israel and the Palestinians to build an “atmosphere of support” for negotiations and “not to complicate them.”

He also assured Abbas and the PA leadership that the US would continue to support them as long as they sought peace.

“I promise you, Mr. President, that the United States will also stand with those who take the risks that peace requires,” Biden told Abbas.

He added that the indirect talks that are expected to be launched soon should eventually lead to direct negotiations and the establishment of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.

Abbas reiterated the PA’s commitment to peace as a “strategic choice” and said that the time has come for making peace on the basis of two states that would live alongside each other in peace and security.

Abbas called upon the Israeli government not to “waste the chance for peace” and stop creating facts on the ground. He also called for lifting the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, which has been under the control of Hamas since 2007.

Muhammad Dahlan, member of the Fatah Central Committee and a former PA security commander, said that condemnations of Israel’s plans were insufficient and called on the US to force Israel to halt all measures on the ground.

“We welcome the position of US Vice President Joe Biden, who has condemned the latest Israeli decision to build new settlements, but what is needed are practical steps that would deter Israel from seizing control over the land,” Dahlan said.

He also accused the Israeli government of harming US interests in the region.

The European Union, meanwhile, joined Biden in condemning the Ramat Shlomo announcement, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issuing a statement calling on the government to “reverse this decision. The EU calls upon the Israeli authorities to fulfill all their commitments and obligations vis-à-vis the peace process and to refrain from unilateral decisions and actions that may jeopardize the final status negotiations.

“The European Union reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law. They undermine current efforts for restarting peace negotiations, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.”

Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband did not suffice with the EU statement, and issued one of his own, calling it a “bad decision at the wrong time. It will give strength to those who argue that Israel is not serious about peace. Along with our EU partners, I condemn it as certain to undermine the mutual confidence we need.”

Biden, however, tried to mend Jewish fences on Thursday, sharing some memories from his first visit to Israel as a young senator in 1973, when he met with then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and with Yitzhak Rabin.

The US vice president said Meir told him that Israel's secret weapon in its against the Arab states was that "we have nowhere else to go."

Biden told the audience they must "make no mistake about America's resolve" in its fight against terrorism and against the Iranian nuclear program.

He said that the Islamic republic has grown more dangerous in the last decade, with Iran funding and supporting Hizbullah and Hamas, and "intimidating both its neighbors and its own people."

America was determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Biden said.

"May God protect you and may God protect Israel," the US vice president concluded.

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Thursday, 11 March 2010 09:20 AM
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