Middle East/US

Biden meets Palestinians amid settlements row


US Vice-President Joe Biden is in the West Bank on Wednesday in an effort to kick-start the stalled Middle East peace process after Israel approved settlement expansion in east Jerusalem.


The construction of 1,600 new Jewish settler homes in east Jerusalem has drawn criticism from Biden, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Palestinians, the European Union and even the office of Israel's Defence Minister.

The Israeli announcement came two days after the Palestinians agreed to indirect talks after months of Biden's shuttle diplomacy.

Dossier: Gaza 2009

"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 and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel," said Biden in a statement.

Israeli media have also decried the move, as daily Haaretz called it a "slap heard round the world".

"The entourage of Defence Minister Ehud Barak expresses its anger after the unwarranted announcement which affects peace negotiations with the Palestinians - negotiations of the highest interest for Israel," said his office in a statement.

EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton also publicly condemned the Israeli plans.

Meanwhile, Biden met Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas separately.

Israel's action "definitely undermines confidence in the prospects for peace", Fayyad told the US Vice-President.

Analysis: Mark Heller at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University

"Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are eager to be to allow themselves to be cast in the role as the ones of those who frustrating Americans," says Israeli analyst Mark Heller.

"For the Palestinians I think [the settlements question] is a very useful stick to beat Israel with," he told RFI. "But I believe that what they are essentially trying to do is negotiate with the Americans,  rather than with Israel, and therefore this won't be an insuperable obstacle for discussions with the  United States, in fact for them it might turn out to be something of a minor political asset."

Biden showed up 90 minutes late for a dinner at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's house, an action interpreted as a sign of displeasure at the settlement move.




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