Joe Biden, in Ramallah, stymied by new settlement construction

US Vice President Joe Biden visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah Wednesday and warned that fresh Israeli settlement construction is undermining confidence in the peace process.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
US Vice President Joe Biden, left, walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas past the honor guard, ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday.

Vice President Joe Biden embarked on the Palestinian leg of his Middle East trip on Wednesday with tensions still high over Israel’s surprise announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem.

But as his convoy snaked its way through the seat of Palestinian government, signs emerged that the bruised effort at new peace talks – the first in more than a year – would survive the uproar.

During the vice president’s meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, they expressed frustration with Israel and warned that settlement activity will doom negotiations. But they stopped short of an about-face on the talks.

The settlement plans "undermine trust and deal a severe blow to the efforts that have been exerted over the past months to launch indirect negotiations," Abbas said after his meeting with Biden, echoing the annoyance of Palestinians and Arabs. But then he signaled that his commitment to the talks had not been broken. "I would like to address the Israelis. The time has come to make peace."

More Israeli construction

On Tuesday, word of a 1,600-home construction project in the part of Jerusalem claimed by Palestinians as their future capital seemed to confirm pessimism about the prospects for a compromise with the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It was another embarrassment for the Palestinians, given the overwhelming public support for the previous boycott of negotiations over settlement expansion.

But after being painted as the holdout on talks for months, the Palestinians don’t seem ready to let an opportunity to paint the Israelis as the problematic peace partner. At the press conference, Abbas said that the Palestinians want to "reiterate" their support for the US mediation efforts and called on Israel "not to waste this chance" to make peace.

When the Palestinians first agreed to launch indirect talks this week, the decision brought Abbas back into line with his own approach to resolving the conflict, which rejects violent conflict in favor of negotiations.

After Abbas's remarks, Vice President Biden, who had come to Israel to soothe ties with Jerusalem that were aggravated last year over the settlement dispute, found himself rebuking Netanyahu’s government for the second time in two days.

Calling on both sides to refrain from actions that undermine confidence in the negotiations, Biden pointed his finger in Israel’s direction. "Yesterday the decision of the Israeli government …. undermined that very trust the trust we need now."

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