Even as the US formally announced Monday that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed to indirect talks, the focus of the talks Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will hold Tuesday with US Vice President Joe Biden is expected to be the Iranian nuclear threat.
Biden is scheduled to meet twice with Netanyahu on Tuesday, once in the morning with staff, and then again at a dinner in the evening, with both men accompanied by their wives.
US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who announced the indirect talks, will not be at the Biden-Netanyahu meetings, an indication that the Palestinian issue, although sure to be a topic of discussion, will not be the main agenda item.
Biden is expected to add his weighty voice to the cavalcade of top US officials over the last six weeks who have come to coordinate positions on Iran, assure Israel that the US is working aggressively to impose sanctions that could impact Teheran, and urge Israel not to take unilateral military action.
“I can promise the people in Israel that we will confront as allies every security challenge that we will face,” Biden said, in a written interview with Yediot Aharonot
that appeared Monday. “An Iran armed with nuclear weapons constitutes a threat not only to Israel, but also constitutes a threat to the US.”
Biden, in the interview, did not answer the question of when significant sanctions would be leveled against Iran, saying only that consultations were continuing.
The vice president would not speculate regarding a timeline for the sanctions, but said the US efforts were “serious,” and that the US was approaching the matter with a sense of urgency.
Netanyahu, who has called for crippling sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, is expected to tell Biden that the current international efforts are “too little” and “too weak.”
Biden, the highest-ranking US official to visit Israel since the Obama administration took office in January 2009, arrived Monday afternoon, accompanied by his wife Jill, for a three-day visit. He did not make a statement when he arrived and was met at the airport by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
In addition to his meetings with Netanyahu, Biden is also scheduled to meet President Shimon Peres and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni on Tuesday. The following day he will travel to Ramallah for meetings with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
The laconic statement issued by Mitchell on Monday night about the agreement to indirect talks, a statement that revealed remaining gaps between the sides on the framework of the talks, precluded any expectation that Biden would formally and ceremoniously launch the start of the talks during his visit.
“I’m pleased that the Israeli and Palestinian leadership have accepted indirect talks,” Mitchell’s statement read. “We’ve begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions. As we’ve said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible. We also again encourage the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.”
Mitchell, who arrived Saturday night and met twice with Netanyahu before meeting Abbas on Monday, is scheduled to leave Tuesday morning.
Netanyahu, in a Jerusalem speech Monday night, “welcomed the renewal of the peace process,” and said he hoped these talks would in the near future lead to direct negotiations.
He said that the two principles that would guide him during the talks were the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the need for real security arrangements on the ground that would ensure Israel’s security.
Abbas, meanwhile, voiced skepticism regarding the prospects of the indirect talks during his meeting with Mitchell in Ramallah, saying that Israel’s latest decision to build 112 housing units in Betar Illit showed that the Netanyahu government was not serious about achieving peace with the Palestinians.
According to chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat, “The president told Mitchell that if every visit by the US envoy would be accompanied by more settlement construction, unilateral measures, creating facts on the ground and the continuation of assassinations, detentions and closures of Palestinian lands, then this raises a question mark over all our efforts.”
Erekat said that Abbas was particularly concerned about the decision to build the new homes in Betar, “despite the big deception called settlement freeze.”
He said the decision was at the top of the agenda of the Abbas-Mitchell talks.
Israeli media on Monday reported on a Defense Ministry okay to build 112 housing units
in Betar, a decision a Defense Ministry spokesman said was made because of “safety issues.”
These units are part of a larger project, and not building them, while the others are in various stages of construction, constituted a safety risk, according to the ministry.
In Washington, US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israeli officials had explained that the construction was approved before the moratorium.
"On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced," Crowley said. "On the other hand, this is a the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of as we move ahead with these parallel talks."
Erekat said Abbas received a letter from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week in which she promised that Washington would play an “active and productive” role in the upcoming negotiations.
Mitchell’s talks in Ramallah came less than 24 hours after the PLO Executive Committee gave Abbas a green light to resume indirect negotiations with Israel under the auspices of the US.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, a senior Abbas aide, revealed that the Palestinians have made it clear that if the two sides failed to produce agreement over the borders of the future Palestinian state after four months of the indirect negotiations, there would be no point in pursuing the talks.
“When we talk about the borders, we are referring to those in the West
Bank, including east Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and the
Gaza Strip,” he said, adding that the Palestinians were also seeking
territorial continuity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Rahim said that once Mitchell manages to reach agreement on the
borders, the two parties would then launch talks on final-status issues
such as refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, water, security, land and
prisoners held in Israeli jails.
He said that the US
administration has informed the PA that the goal of the talks was to
“end the occupation that began in 1967 and the establishment of an
independent and viable Palestinian state that would live in peace and
security alongside Israel.”