'Palestinians deserve viable state'

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

biden abbas BFF thumbs up 311 (photo credit: AP)
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 toreassure them of US support after the Interior Ministry on Tuesdayapproved a plan to expand the Jewish Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in eastJerusalem.
Biden said that the approval of a plan to build 1,600 new housing units in theeast Jerusalem neighborhood "undermines peace efforts."
TheIsraeli move has overshadowed Biden's visit, meant to promote a newround of US-led negotiations brokered by US special envoy to theMideast George Mitchell, and drawn Palestinian accusations that Israelis not serious about peace.
Capping a day of meetings withPalestinian leaders, Biden told his hosts that the US is committed tobrokering a final peace deal — something that has eluded US leaders fordecades.
"The United States pledges to play an active as well asa sustainable role in these talks," Biden said. He stressed thePalestinians deserve an independent state that is "viable andcontiguous," meaning the territory should not be broken up by Israelisettlement enclaves.
It was a clear message to Israel that the US expects a broad withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a deal.
Standingalongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Bidenreiterated his condemnation of the Israeli plan and urged both sides torefrain from actions "that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome oftalks."
"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 inJerusalem, threatens the negotiations before they get off the ground.
"Wecall on Israel to cancel these decisions," Abbas said. "I call on theIsraeli government not to lose a chance to make peace. I call on themto halt settlement building and to stop imposing facts on the ground,and to give the efforts of the Obama administration and SenatorMitchell the chance to succeed."
As Biden arrived in Ramallah tomeet with Palestinian leaders, Palestinian Authority Prime MinisterSalam Fayyad said the building plan was "damaging" and posed a "greatchallenge" to restarting peace talks.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat also blasted the new construction.
"Ithink the Israeli government is making it almost impossible for us, theAmericans and the international community, to take a one centimeterstep in the direction of reviving the peace process," Erekat said.
Fayyad said the Palestinians appreciated "the strong statement of condemnation" by the US administration.
Fayyadwas referring to a statement by Biden issued on Tuesday night, in whichhe said that "the substance and timing of the announcement,particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely thekind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."
The construction plan also drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt, Israel'sclosest ally in the Arab world, and from UN Secretary-General BanKi-moon.
"This is absurd. It is disdainful of the Arab and the Palestinianpositions and the American mediation," said Hossam Zaki, a spokesmanfor the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.