Biden appeals for no delay in Mideast peace talks

Tel Aviv–US Vice President Joe Biden called on Thursday for no delay in resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, after Palestinians said Israel must cancel a settlement project before negotiations can begin.

"The most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go forward promptly and go forward in good faith," Biden said in a speech at Tel Aviv University. "We can’t delay because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our differences."

Israel’s announcement this week, during Biden’s visit, of plans to build 1600 settler homes in an area of the occupied West Bank it annexed to Jerusalem, cast a shadow over US efforts to relaunch Middle East peacemaking.

The decision embarrassed Biden, who said it undermined peace efforts, and infuriated the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, which had agreed to a US proposal for indirect talks under pressure from Washington and its Arab allies.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on Wednesday he had decided not to enter the talks for now. The Arab League had endorsed a four-month framework for the US-mediated negotiations.

"The Palestinian side is not ready to negotiate under the present circumstances," Moussa said in Cairo.

An aide to Abbas said the Palestinians wanted US pressure on Israel to reverse the settlement expansion decision, which Israeli officials said was badly timed, but would not be canceled.

"What is required is that when [US envoy George] Mitchell comes back … he is supposed to succeed in revoking the Israeli settlement decisions in East Jerusalem in order to give an opportunity to launch the indirect talks," said the aide, Nabil Abu Rdainah.


In his speech, Biden gave no sign Washington would press Israel to cancel the project. Instead, he said he had been assured by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that construction at the site, a religious Jewish settlement, would not start for years.

Biden said Palestinians had misunderstood Israel’s announcement of the settlement plan, thinking that building would begin immediately.

With no construction scheduled for now, he said, negotiators would have time to "resolve this and other outstanding issues."

Mitchell, who has been trying to broker for a year a resumption of talks on Palestinian statehood, was expected to return to Israel and the West Bank next week.

Abbas had demanded a full halt to settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in a 1967 war, before any resumption of the two-decade old peace process.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, a claim that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they hope to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and construction there will be carried out like in Tel Aviv or any other city — in every part of Jerusalem according to the plans," Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio.

Asked about a report in Israel’s Haaretz daily that 50,000 more homes were being planned for Jerusalem, he said: "I repeat, construction in Jerusalem will continue in all its stages." He added: "Jerusalem is a big city. It is a city that has to grow.

The Palestinians say the settlements, considered illegal by major world powers, will deny them a viable state.

Under US pressure, Israel announced in November a decision to restrain building in its West Bank settlements for ten months but said the restrictions would not include East Jerusalem.

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