'Palestinians deserve viable state'

Biden, Abbas criticize Ramat Shlomo building at Ramallah press conference.

March 10, 2010 14:44
2 minute read.
US Vice President Joseph Biden, left, gestures as

biden abbas BFF thumbs up 311. (photo credit: AP)

US Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday the Palestinians deserve a "viable" independent state with contiguous territory, seeking to reassure them of US support after the Interior Ministry on Tuesday approved a plan to expand the Jewish Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in east Jerusalem.

Biden said that the approval of a plan to build 1,600 new housing units in the east Jerusalem neighborhood "undermines peace efforts."

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The Israeli move has overshadowed Biden's visit, meant to promote a new round of US-led negotiations brokered by US special envoy to the Mideast George Mitchell, and drawn Palestinian accusations that Israel is not serious about peace.

Capping a day of meetings with Palestinian leaders, Biden told his hosts that the US is committed to brokering a final peace deal — something that has eluded US leaders for decades.

"The United States pledges to play an active as well as a sustainable role in these talks," Biden said. He stressed the Palestinians deserve an independent state that is "viable and contiguous," meaning the territory should not be broken up by Israeli settlement enclaves.

It was a clear message to Israel that the US expects a broad withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a deal.

Standing alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden reiterated his condemnation of the Israeli plan and urged both sides to refrain from actions "that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks."

"It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations, and not to complicate them," Biden said.

Abbas, however, said Israel's continued settlement construction, especially in Jerusalem, threatens the negotiations before they get off the ground.

"We call on Israel to cancel these decisions," Abbas said. "I call on the Israeli government not to lose a chance to make peace. I call on them to halt settlement building and to stop imposing facts on the ground, and to give the efforts of the Obama administration and Senator Mitchell the chance to succeed."

As Biden arrived in Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leaders, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the building plan was "damaging" and posed a "great challenge" to restarting peace talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also blasted the new construction.

"I think the Israeli government is making it almost impossible for us, the Americans and the international community, to take a one centimeter step in the direction of reviving the peace process," Erekat said.

Fayyad said the Palestinians appreciated "the strong statement of condemnation" by the US administration.

Fayyad was referring to a statement by Biden issued on Tuesday night, in which he said that "the substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."

The construction plan also drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt, Israel's closest ally in the Arab world, and from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"This is absurd. It is disdainful of the Arab and the Palestinian positions and the American mediation," said Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

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