Soon after US Vice President Joe Biden left for Jordan on Thursday, senior Israeli officials said they anticipate the proximity talks with the Palestinians will begin soon, because Biden made clear to the PA leadership that this is what the US expects.
According to the officials, Biden – in his speech at Tel Aviv University on Thursday – made it obvious that despite the row over the construction plans in northeast Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, the US was interested in “putting everything back on the rails.”
Biden, meanwhile, told Al-Jazeera in an interview taped in Bethlehem on Wednesday that he expected that direct negotiations dealing with all the core issues would begin in about four months.
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US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected back in the country next week, to shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah and set up the framework for the indirect talks.
The Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said, however, that the PA would start the indirect talks “if Mitchell informs us that the Israeli plan has been canceled.
“It will be very difficult for us to go to the talks if Israel does not cancel the plans,” Erekat said. “We can’t go to the talks while Israel is building settlements.”
Israeli officials, however, said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had no intention of rolling back the Ramat Shlomo plans, or pledging no new construction in east Jerusalem. Indeed, the officials pointed out, in the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on Thursday morning, crafted by staffers from both Netanyahu’s and Biden’s offices, an “ongoing disagreement between Israel and the US on building in Jerusalem” was acknowledged.
“Our policy regarding Jerusalem is unchanged,” one senior Israeli diplomatic official said, adding that it was fully clear to the US that Israel has not altered its policy about building in east Jerusalem, which it does not consider a settlement.
What Israel regretted about the Ramat Shlomo incident was the timing of the Interior Minister announcement, government officials said on Thursday, and not the decision to build there.
Biden met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak following his address at Tel Aviv University, and took an hourlong helicopter flight over the country. From Israel he went to Jordan, where he will tour Petra and meet with King Abdullah II.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, began a two-day visit to Tunisia on Thursday.
Before leaving Ramallah, he received a phone call from Biden reiterating Washington’s strong opposition to the Ramat Shlomo housing plan, a source close to Abbas said.
The source said that both Biden and Mitchell were seeking to convince the PA leadership not to stay away from the planned indirect talks with Israel.
The source said the general assessment in Ramallah was that the PA would eventually return to the negotiating table, despite the threats and condemnations coming out of Ramallah.
Hanna Amireh, a senior PLO official in the West Bank, said that Abbas
has decided for now to delay the resumption of the shuttle talks.
“The president has decided to postpone the launching of the indirect
talks with Israel until an agreement is reached on the issue of
continued settlement construction, including in Jerusalem,” Amireh
said. “The president has not changed his mind and is still willing to
resume the talks. At this stage we are only talking about a
postponement and not a cancellation.”