New wrinkle in Joe Biden agenda: 1,600 units in Israeli settlement

As US Vice President Joe Biden prepares to meet Palestinians tomorrow, the Interior Ministry announced 1,600 new housing units in an Israeli settlement today. The move could disrupt a newly agreed restart of Israeli-Palestinian talks.

US Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, stand in silence in the Hall of Remembrances at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on Monday, in Jerusalem.
Ariel Schalit/AP
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden looks walks in the cemetery on Mt. Herzel in Jerusalem, Tuesday, the same day that Israel's Interior Ministry announced 1,600 new housing units in an Israeli settlement .

As Vice President Joe Biden began four days of diplomatic meetings on Iran and the peace process, there was already a sign of uncertainty on the newly renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Two days after the US brokered an agreement on the first negotiations between the sides in nearly a year, Israel's Interior Ministry today published plans to build a new neighborhood of 1,600 homes in east Jerusalem – following a separate announcement of 112 new units yesterday. A Palestinian spokesman immediately denounced the move, and threatened to break off the talks before they even began

"With such an announcement, how can you build trust? This is destroying our efforts to work with Mr. Mitchell," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. "It's a really disastrous situation. I hope that this will be an eye-opener for all in the international community about the need to have the Israeli government stop such futile exercises."

Interior ministry bid to undermine Netanyahu?

The incident highlights the tentative nature of negotiations that are already fraught with mistrust. Upset about Israeli building on lands they claim for a future state, Palestinians relented Sunday on a boycott of negotiations only after prodding by US and Arab allies and on condition they be indirect.

A statement from the Israeli Interior Ministry, which is run by Eli Yishai of the religious nationalist Shas party, described the move as a "procedural" decision on a plan that’s been awaiting action for three years. The timing for the approval for the project is coincidental, the statement said

"The prime minister’s office only found out about this today," said an Israeli official who requested to remain anonymous. "It’s a preliminary stage of a building process.

Israeli development in Jerusalem has been a particularly sore issue recently with the Palestinians. Just last week Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat spoke of a plan to turn a dilapidated Palestinian neighborhood into a tourist park and commercial center, while relocating residents to new housing with special financing.

Dispute about starting point for talks

Earlier in the day another potential disagreement in talks cropped up during remarks before Biden’s meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Responding to Palestinian demands that the indirect negotiations focus first on borders, Mr. Peres sought to lower expectations. He warned that tackling that topic first could upend talks because some infuse borders with a holy significance.

Though Peres’ role is only ceremonial, he could have been floating a trial balloon for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While the Palestinians are eager for new Israeli land concessions, for the Israeli prime minister border talks could mean potentially recognizing the 1967 Green Line as the basis for negotiations. The gap highlights the question of whether Israelis and Palestinians will pick up the talks where they were left off under the previous more dovish administration, or whether they will start anew.

The announcement of the 1,600 new housing units could knock Biden’s trip off kilter. One of the vice president's missions has been to shore up the US-Israeli diplomatic ties after the two allies sparred publicly last year over building in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He is also trying to soothe Israeli worries about facing a nuclear Iran.

"There is absolutely no space between the US and Israel in terms of Israel’s security," Biden said before a morning meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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