Israel seeks to patch up settlement row

15Jan

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly apologised to the visiting US vice president, hoping to defuse a row over settlements that appeared to scuttle indirect peace talks with the Palestinians.

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Vice President Joe Biden welcomed Netanyahu’s statement but again criticised Israel’s decision to approve construction of 1600 new homes for Jewish settlers in Arab east Jerusalem, announced during his visit this week.

Israel’s right-wing prime minister, who supports expanding Jewish communities in annexed east Jerusalem, said on Thursday he had spoken to Biden and “expressed his regret for the unfortunate timing”.

Response welcome

Biden welcomed Netanyahu’s response.

“Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truths, and I appreciate … the response by the prime minister today,” Biden said in a speech at Tel Aviv University.

He noted that Netanyahu “clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years”.

“That’s significant because it gives negotiators the time to resolve this as well as other outstanding issues,” said Biden, while reiterating condemnation of Israel’s go-ahead for the settlement construction.

Crisis over

Netanyahu called Biden on Thursday morning, “and both agreed the crisis is behind them,” an official in the premier’s office said.

The Palestinians, however, rejected the statement because it only addressed the timing of the project and not its substance.

“The continuation of settlements is the error, not the timing of them, because they are always illegal,” Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Biden said it was crucial that Israel and the Palestinians resume talks soon. “The status quo is not sustainable.”

But Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said earlier he would not enter into any negotiations with Israel until the Jerusalem settlement project was frozen, while the Arab League withdrew its support for indirect talks.

Talks to go ahead

However, US officials said that the talks could still go ahead.

“We’ve heard nothing to indicate they’ve pulled out,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters later on Thursday in Washington.

Biden had hoped his visit to the Middle East would boost the chances of indirect talks. Instead, he found himself dealing with the fallout from Israel’s decision.

But his strong stance against the Israeli move drew fire at home.

“I urge the administration to spend more time working to stop Iran from building nuclear bombs and less time concerned with zoning issues in Jerusalem,” said Republican Representative Mark Kirk, who is running for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat.

Regional visit

The controversy followed Biden, who travelled later on Thursday to Jordan for talks with key regional ally King Abdullah II.

“The king will express to Biden his frustration over Israel’s new settlements plans, which undermine peace efforts,” said a senior official, who added that Biden headed immediately from the airport to the meeting.

Netanyahu also came under fire from a minister of the centre-left Labour party, a key ally in his otherwise right-wing coalition, who warned that the party may quit over the move.

“Members of the Labour party have more and more difficulty in taking part in a coalition government that they joined with the purpose of relaunching the peace process with the Palestinians,” Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said.

The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the eventual capital of their promised state.

Israel, which seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital.

The decision to build the homes in the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighbourhood ignited an international furore, with both the European Union and the United Nations reiterating that all settlements are “illegal”.

Russia called the move “unacceptable” and Britain said it would “give strength to those who argue that Israel is not serious about peace.”

US Envoy to raise issues

US envoy George Mitchell plans to raise the matter when he travels to the region again next week, according to the US state department.

Mitchell had helped broker a deal to begin indirect talks. The last round of direct negotiations collapsed when Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in December 2008.

Biden, who is travelling with his wife Jill, on Thursday also toured Israel by helicopter with Defence Minister Ehud Barak, before heading to the Jordanian capital Amman.

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