Biden condemns Israeli push for more settlements

News on homes deals setback on eve of talks

By Ethan Bronner
New York Times / March 10, 2010

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JERUSALEM - Hours after Vice President Joe Biden vowed unyielding American support for Israel’s security yesterday, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, prompting Biden to condemn the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.’’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clearly embarrassed at the move by his interior minister, Eli Yishai, leader of the right-wing Shas Party, who has made Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem one of his central causes.

A statement issued in the name of the Interior Ministry but distributed by the prime minister’s office said that the housing plan was three years in the making and that its announcement was procedural and unrelated to Biden’s visit. It added that Netanyahu had just been informed of it himself.

Netanyahu supports Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, yet wants to get new talks with the Palestinians going and to maintain strong relations with Washington. But when he formed his coalition a year ago he joined forces with several right-wing parties and has since found it hard to keep them in line.

Biden came to Jerusalem largely to assure the Israelis of Washington’s commitment to its security and to restart peace talks with the Palestinians.

He began the day on a note of support, asserting the Obama administration’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.’’

But by the end of the day, Biden’s tone had a very different quality. He issued a statement condemning “the substance and timing of the announcement’’ of the housing, and added, “Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues.’’

He said the announcement “runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.’’

On Monday, George J. Mitchell, the administration’s Middle East envoy, announced that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to four months of indirect peace talks, the first such negotiations in more than a year.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for the Palestinian government, called the new housing announcement “a dangerous decision that will torpedo the negotiations and sentence the American efforts to complete failure.’’

“The American administration must respond to this provocation with actual measures, as it is no longer possible to just turn the other cheek,’’ he continued, “and massive American pressure is required in order to compel Israel to abandon its peace-destroying behavior.’’

The new housing announced yesterday is for an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, Ramat Shlomo. The Interior Ministry’s statement said the step yesterday was part of a long process that would continue for quite some time before the units were built. The announcement followed a day in which Biden, who will stay in the region through Friday, had made a concerted and highly public show of American support for Israel.

Biden also said that, like Israel, the Obama administration was determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and from supporting groups that threaten Israel. The United States is trying to build a consensus for international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Israel has threatened to use military force, but is going along with the American approach for now. Part of the purpose of this trip is to cement that cooperation.