Mideast peace talks stalled before they begin

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Vice President Joe Biden and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on March 10, 2010. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

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Vice President Joe Biden met today with Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Yesterday, Biden visited with Israeli officials. The vice president made the trip to restart peace talks and to show US support for Israel in the face of a growing threat from Iran. But the trip has been all but overshadowed by what many consider a diplomatic blunder by Israel.

The Interior Ministry there announced yesterday that it will build 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. The announcement surprised and disappointed the vice president.

Standing next to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden had harsh words for Israel. "It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations, and not to complicate them,"  he 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 being as well as produce appropriable negotiations. That is why I immediately condemned the action."

Abbas said Israel should reverse the decision about building the homes. "Once again, I call on the Israeli government not to waste the opportunity for peace. I call on the Israeli government to stop settlement and to putting the fait accompli on the ground."

In Israel, Interior Minister Eli Yishai apologized for the timing announcement, saying it was not meant to embarrass the vice president. He also said that if he had known in advance, he would have pushed the announcement off until after Biden left.

Last night, Biden showed up an hour late for a planned dinner with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a move which the Israeli media saw as a snub. Netanyahu insisted he didn't know in advance that the announcement was coming.

"The prime minister knows no more about every single housing project in the city of Jerusalem than President Obama knows about every housing project in downtown Washington," Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told Israeli television. "It's a very complex situation. There are many authorities involved in the housing business in Jerusalem, and the prime minister can't know it all."

But some in Israel say he should have known about something like this. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is from the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, and is a member of Netanyahu's coalition. Some in Israel speculated that Shas, which supports expansion of Jewish settlements and opposed Netanyahu's decision to freeze new building starts for ten months, is trying to embarrass Netanyahu into building more homes.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said the settlement freeze does not apply to East Jerusalem.

"Jerusalem is our capital, and as no one would suggest to negotiate any part of London for whatever reason it is, one should not expect the government of Israel to do that," said Israeli Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau. "In fact, this government has been elected to this office just to make clear that on our capital, on the City of David, we are not going to negotiate."

To the Palestinians, East Jerusalem is the future capital of a Palestinian state. To the US, the status of East Jerusalem should be determined through negotiations. To Israel, East Jerusalem is an indivisible part of its capital, and building will continue.

Tomorrow, Vice President Biden gives a speech at Tel Aviv University that was supposed to show the world just how close the US and Israel are. Israeli officials are wondering if that speech is being changed in light of yesterday's events.

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