Ramallah, West Bank–Israel apologized Wednesday for disrupting the visit of Vice President Joe Biden with its announcement of 1,600 new homes in disputed east Jerusalem, but made clear it had no intention of reversing the order that has cast a shadow over the latest US push for Mideast peace.
As Biden held talks with top Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office announced the new construction on lands Palestinians claim for a future state, said the problem was about timing, not substance.
"We had no intention, no desire, to offend or taunt an important man like the vice president during his visit," Yishai told Israel Radio. "I am very sorry for the embarrassment. We need to remember that approvals are done according to law even if the timing was wrong. … Next time we need to take timing into account."
Biden’s talks with the Palestinians on Wednesday were aimed in part to ease their doubts about the latest US peace efforts. Israel’s planned construction in east Jerusalem was an embarrassing setback for Biden after a day of warm meetings with senior Israeli officials — and drew an unusually harsh condemnation from the vice president.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said the Israeli announcement was "damaging" and posed a "great challenge" to restarting peace talks. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the new construction would be the main item on the Abbas-Biden agenda.
"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.
Palestinian security forces lined the streets of Ramallah as Biden’s convoy of black SUVs made its way from Fayyad’s office to Abbas’ headquarters, a 10-minute drive. Riot policemen, with their backs to the road, faced small groups of Palestinians watching from side roads and shops.
In an apparent snub Tuesday night, Biden pointedly arrived 90 minutes late to his scheduled dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and he sharply rebuked the Israeli step — which came just after the Palestinians agreed to a new round of indirect peace talks under US mediation after a 14-month lapse.
"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," Biden said.
"We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them," he added, warning that "unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations."
Fayyad said the Palestinians appreciated "the strong statement of condemnation" by the US administration.
Israel’s opposition Kadima party said it is planning a no-confidence vote in the prime minister in parliament for "destroying" the Biden visit.
The new 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.
Israeli media lambasted the move, calling it an embarrassment.
"A slap heard round the world," read the headline of a front-page commentary in Israel’s Haaretz daily.
Israel’s refusal to halt building on war-won land has infuriated the Palestinians and undermined their faith in the US as an effective mediator.
President Barack Obama initially called for a complete settlement freeze, but did not take Israel to task when it only agreed to a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in the West Bank. Netanyahu refuses to stop building in east Jerusalem, saying he will never partition the city.
The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War, as their future capital.
Earlier this week, the Palestinians reluctantly agreed to indirect negotiations with Israel, with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell to shuttle between Abbas and Netanyahu in coming months.
Abbas has said he won’t resume direct negotiations without a settlement freeze, leaving the US no choice but to arrange the indirect talks in hopes of ending the impasse.
Growing settlements take up more and more of the land the Palestinians want for their state and make partition increasingly difficult. Today, nearly 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and 180,000 in east Jerusalem.
The ongoing construction is also eroding domestic support for Abbas and his policy of trying to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel.
Many Palestinians are critical of US-led peace efforts, saying two decades of on-and-off negotiations have deepened Israeli control over the lands they want for their state, instead of bringing them closer to independence.
The latest Israeli building plan is undermining Abbas, said Erekat. "It’s a really disastrous situation. I hope that this will be an eye-opener for all in the international community."
At Tuesday’s dinner, Netanyahu told Biden he was caught off guard by the ministry’s announcement, a senior Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the dinner was closed.
While Netanyahu considers east Jerusalem to be part of Israel, he acknowledged the timing of the announcement was poor and said he had no intention of sabotaging Biden’s visit. He stressed that there are no plans to begin construction anytime soon.