Biden Pushes For Talks Between Israel, Palestinians

"A moment of opportunity," that's what Vice President Joe Biden is calling the announcement that Israelis and Palestinians will be engaging in indirect negotiations brokered by the United States. Biden is on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is the highest ranking member of the Obama Administration so far to make that trip.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Vice President Joe Biden calls this a moment of opportunity in the Middle East. He made that statement about the plan for Israelis and Palestinians to engage in indirect negotiations brokered by the United States.

The vice president is on a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Jerusalem. And when the vice president met Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, what did they talk about?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the vice president is meeting with Israeli leaders today, Palestinian leaders tomorrow, and while the peace process is on the agenda, Steve, the main issue on the table was Iran and its suspected nuclear program. At a press conference after the meeting, which I listened to, the vice president's message to Israel's leaders and its people seemed to be clear. Let's take a listen.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there's simply no space between the United States and Israel. There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iran and its potential nuclear threat, he went on to say, is a top priority of the American administration.

Vice President BIDEN: We're determined we're determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we're working with many countries around the world to convince Tehran to meet its international obligations and cease and desist.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steve, Israel believes that Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons, something Iran has denied. And Israel's been extremely active in promoting sanctions and leaving open the possibility of a military strike. Now, that's something the U.S. does not want Israel to do, to launch a preemptive strike against suspected nuclear sites. And we understand Biden conveyed that message to the Israeli leadership as well.

INSKEEP: We're talking about two different relationships here, I guess. There's Israel and the Palestinians, and they're going to be holding these indirect talks, and there's also Israel and Iran, and their confrontation, which also involves the United States.

Lourdes, is Biden trying to reassure the Israelis that the U.S. will take care of them regarding Iran but that they need some kind of progress having to do with the peace talks?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think that's exactly what's going on. I mean Biden is the highest-ranking U.S. official to come here. Over the past year, relations have been strained. Israel disapproved of the Obama administration's desire to initially engage Iran in talks. The U.S., for its part, felt Israel wasn't making enough concessions on the peace process. This trip by the vice president is an attempt to repair the relationship. Iran is Israel's top priority. Its made no bones about that. More than the peace process. And that's something that's been made clear again and again by Israel's leadership.

INSKEEP: Okay, so where does that leave the peace process?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good question. Yesterday, Israel and the Palestinians, as you mentioned, agreed to indirect talks brokered by the U.S. Now, Israelis and Palestinians have not been talking to each other at all. Peace negotiations haven't been stalled here. They've been stopped.

So Biden's visit coincides with that announcement and he touted it as a sign of progress and he reiterated, as we'll hear here, his support for a two-state solution.

Vice President BIDEN: The goal is obviously to resolve the final status issues and to achieve a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security.

INSKEEP: That's what Biden says but how likely is it to actually happen?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's zero trust between the two side right now and direct talks have been going on for almost 20 years with no results. So many people see these indirect talks as a step backwards, not a step forwards. Settlements continue to be a major source of contention. Israel just recently approved the construction of a new raft of 112 units in the occupied West Bank, despite a partial freeze that they have going on.

It's a tense period and many observers here are, frankly, pessimistic.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Jerusalem. Thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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