Israel seeks to patch up row over settlement plans

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a public apology to the visiting United States vice-president on Thursday in a bid to defuse a row over settlements that prompted a Palestinian boycott of indirect peace talks.

US Vice-President Joe Biden welcomed Netanyahu’s statement but again criticised Israel’s decision to approve construction of 1 600 new homes for Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem, which was announced during his visit this week.

Israel’s right-wing prime minister, who supports expanding Jewish communities in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, said he had spoken to Biden and “expressed his regret for the unfortunate timing”.

Biden welcomed Netanyahu’s response.

“Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truths, and I appreciate ... the response by the prime minister today [Thursday],” Biden said in a speech at Tel Aviv University.

He noted that Netanyahu “clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years”.

“That’s significant because it gives negotiators the time to resolve this as well as other outstanding issues,” said Biden, who had strongly condemned Israel’s go-ahead for the settlement construction.

Netanyahu called Biden on Thursday morning, “and both agreed the crisis is behind them,” an official in the premier’s office said.

In his Tel Aviv speech, Biden said it was crucial that Israel and the Palestinians resume talks soon. “The status quo is not sustainable.”

But Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said earlier he would not enter into any negotiations with Israel until the Jerusalem settlement project was frozen, while the Arab League withdrew its support for indirect talks.

The league issued a statement overnight following an emergency meeting of Arab ambassadors saying “the Israeli measures must be stopped before any discussion on a resumption of talks, direct or indirect”.

‘Grave error’
Biden had hoped his visit to the Middle East would boost the chances of indirect talks. Instead he found himself dealing with the fall-out from Israel’s decision.

Netanyahu also came under fire from a minister of the centre-left Labour party, a key ally in his otherwise right-wing coalition, who warned that the party may quit over the move.

“Members of the Labour party have more and more difficulty in taking part in a coalition government that they joined with the purpose of relaunching the peace process with the Palestinians,” Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said.

“The anger of Biden is justified. A grave error has been committed and there is a price to pay,” he told army radio.

The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state.

Israel, which seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital.

The decision to build the homes in the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighbourhood ignited an international furore.

“The European Union reiterates that settlements are illegal under international law,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement on Wednesday, echoing a point made by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon a day earlier.

Several states issued their own messages attacking the Israeli position, including veto-wielding Security Council permanent members Russia, which called the move “unacceptable,” and Britain, which said it would “give strength to those who argue that Israel is not serious about peace”.

Turkey, Israel’s closest Muslim ally in the region, also slammed the move, saying that it raised “serious doubts” about Israel’s commitment to peace.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Crowley said Mitchell would raise the matter when he returned to the region next week.

On Monday, Mitchell had helped broker a deal to begin indirect talks. The last round of direct negotiations collapsed when Israel launched a devastating offensive against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in December 2008.—AFP

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