The PA will resume indirect talks with Israel in the coming days, despite the threats and strong condemnations coming from Ramallah over an Interior Ministry committee’s approval of plans to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo in east Jerusalem, a senior PA official in Ramallah said Wednesday.
The official’s comments came after visiting US Vice President Joe Biden condemned the plan for the second time in 24 hours, this time standing in Ramallah next to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“Yesterday the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem undermined that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as have profitable negotiations. That is why I immediately condemned the action,” Biden said after meeting Abbas.
The vice president added that the US “will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did.”
The PA official expressed satisfaction with the US position on the matter, saying the administration had condemned it even before most of the Arab countries.
The Arab League on Wednesday night recommended withdrawing support for indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis due to the Ramat Shlomo announcement. The league’s Arab Peace Initiative committee called for a meeting of Arab foreign ministers to reconsider their support for the talks they extended on March 3.
The committee said Israel’s announcement Tuesday to build 1,600 new housing units showed it was not serious about negotiating, and that if the move was not halted immediately the talks would have “no meaning.”
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The PA official said that Biden and US Middle East envoy George Mitchell have reassured Abbas that Washington would continue to exert heavy pressure on Israel to prevent it from taking “provocative” measures such as the construction of new houses in east Jerusalem or the West Bank.
Abbas, who expressed outrage at the Israeli move, said following the meeting with Biden it was a “severe blow” to US efforts to re-launch the peace talks in the Middle East, and called for the plans to be revoked.
One Israeli government official said that this was unlikely, since the Interior Ministry body that approved the plan had statutory powers that the political echelon could not overrule.
The official – reflecting the position inside the Prime Minister’s Office that the timing of the decision was unfortunate and a mistake, but that the decision itself to build within Jerusalem’s municipal borders was legitimate – said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said from the outset that building in east Jerusalem would continue.
Building in east Jerusalem has been the core of the disagreement between Israel and the PA for months, the official said, with Abbas calling for a total halt to all construction, and Netanyahu refusing to do so.
Netanyahu was quoted as telling ministers in Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting that Israel would continue building in Jerusalem, and that the problem was not with the essence of the decision, but the timing.
Netanyahu spoke about the matter earlier in the day with Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who said he did not know about the decision beforehand and that it was strictly a technical and procedural matter.
Netanyahu told Yishai the decision had caused him a great deal of embarrassment with Biden.
In an effort to prevent the recurrence of such an incident, Netanyahu instructed Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser to issue new directives to the cabinet ministers to ensure he would in the future be informed in advance of any decisions that could either lead to public disturbances or impact on diplomatic or security matters.
Despite the controversy, Biden, after his meeting with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, urged both Israel and the Palestinians to build an “atmosphere of support” for negotiations and “not to complicate them.”
He also assured Abbas and the PA leadership that the US would continue to support them as long as they sought peace.
“I promise you, Mr. President, that the United States will also stand with those who take the risks that peace requires,” Biden told Abbas.
He added that the indirect talks that are expected to be launched soon should eventually lead to direct negotiations and the establishment of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.
Abbas reiterated the PA’s commitment to peace as a “strategic choice” and said that the time has come for making peace on the basis of two states that would live alongside each other in peace and security.
Abbas called upon the Israeli government not to “waste the chance for peace” and stop creating facts on the ground. He also called for lifting the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip, which has been under the control of Hamas since 2007.
Muhammad Dahlan, member of the Fatah Central Committee and a former PA security commander, said that condemnations of Israel’s plans were insufficient and called on the US to force Israel to halt all measures on the ground.
“We welcome the position of US Vice President Joe Biden, who has condemned the latest Israeli decision to build new settlements, but what is needed are practical steps that would deter Israel from seizing control over the land,” Dahlan said.
He also accused the Israeli government of harming US interests in the region.
The European Union, meanwhile, joined Biden in condemning the Ramat Shlomo announcement, with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton issuing a statement calling on the government to “reverse this decision. The EU calls upon the Israeli authorities to fulfill all their commitments and obligations vis-à-vis the peace process and to refrain from unilateral decisions and actions that may jeopardize the final status negotiations.
“The European Union reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law. They undermine current efforts for restarting peace negotiations, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband did not suffice with the EU statement, and issued one of his own, calling it a “bad decision at the wrong time. It will give strength to those who argue that Israel is not serious about peace. Along with our EU partners, I condemn it as certain to undermine the mutual confidence we need.”
Biden, meanwhile, will wrap up his three-day trip to Israel and the PA
on Thursday with a speech at Tel Aviv University entitled “The Enduring
Partnership Between the United States and Israel.”
address will be keenly watched and analyzed in Jerusalem to see whether
he will repeat the support and ardor for Israel that he articulated on
Tuesday before the Ramat Shlomo issue exploded.
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