Biden Meets With Palestinian Leader

Vice President Joe Biden met with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah as the U.S. prepares to mediate talks between the Palestinians and Israel. Biden and the Palestinians condemned a newly announced Israeli plan to build more housing in East Jerusalem.

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Vice President Joe Biden traveled to the Palestinian territories today to meet with Palestinian leaders and talk about the peace process. Over the weekend, Israelis and Palestinians announced they would soon begin indirect talks. It would be the first engagement of any kind in over a year. But all has not gone well for the vice president on this trip. Yesterday, while Biden was in Israel, the Israeli interior minister announced it has approved 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, an area that Palestinians want as the capital of their future state. The move forced Biden to criticize his hosts.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was in Ramallah today, and she has this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The slap heard around the world was the headline in Israel's left-leaning daily Haaretz. Other Israeli and Palestinian papers said Israel's decision to announce the new construction has caused a crisis for the vice president, and so instead of touting the new agreement between Israelis and Palestinians to hold so-called proximity talks brokered by the U.S., Biden instead had to take Israel to task.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations and not to complicate them. Yesterday, the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust. That is why I immediately condemned the action.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Israel's government released a statement apologizing for the timing of the announcement. In an interview with NPR, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren acknowledged that it had caused the vice president embarrassment.

Ambassador MICHAEL OREN (Israel): It was unfortunate. It was unfortunate. It was not intentional. And we would have preferred that the announcement been made at a different time, but there was no intention to insult the vice president or to disturb his visit here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was not the timing of the announcement that the Palestinians were complaining about, rather the substance of it.

President MAHMOUD ABBAS (Palestinian Authority): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Standing next to Biden after their meeting, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to rescind the decision. Jerusalem is one of the most contentious issues in the conflict here. Palestinians want Israel to freeze all settlement activity in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel says the city is the unified capital of the Jewish state and that construction will continue.

Publicly today, the relationship between the Americans and the Palestinians seemed warm. Aides to Abbas told reporters that the meetings today were cordial and productive. But George Giacaman, a political analyst at Birzeit University, says there is a great deal of anger towards the Obama administration among Palestinians.

Professor GEORGE GIACAMAN (Political Analyst, Birzeit University): There's no reason to believe that the position of the American administration is not more than management of conflict. So far we have seen no indication that can be called serious to push for a settlement.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says the U.S. strong-armed the Palestinian leadership into taking part in these indirect talks, and yesterday's announcement of new Jewish building in East Jerusalem further compromised Palestinian president Abbas.

Prof. GIACAMAN: The Palestinian Authority is strengthened or weakened in direct proportion to the achievement of political goals. The continued confiscation of personal land and building of settlements, including also in Jerusalem, directly weakens the Palestinian Authority.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Palestinians are deeply pessimistic that the indirect talks will yield results in the current climate. Israelis too have voiced skepticism. One Israeli official says he foresees no substantive issues being discussed, saying there will be talks about talks.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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For Biden, A Case Of Heartburn In The Holy Land

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas i i

Vice President Biden (left) waves as he reviews an honor guard alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before their meeting Wednesday in Ramallah, West Bank. During Biden's Mideast tour, Israel announced plans to build more houses in east Jerusalem, highlighting the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians. hide caption

itoggle caption
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Vice President Biden (left) waves as he reviews an honor guard alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before their meeting Wednesday in Ramallah, West Bank. During Biden's Mideast tour, Israel announced plans to build more houses in east Jerusalem, highlighting the chasm between Israel and the Palestinians.

What started off as a promising goodwill visit by Vice President Biden to Israel this week devolved into diplomatic embarrassment.

Israel's announcement Tuesday of plans to build 1,600 new homes for Israelis in east Jerusalem appeared to catch Biden — the highest-ranking member of the Obama administration yet to visit Israel — by surprise.

Biden quickly issued a statement condemning the Israeli decision to build on land claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel's interior minister later publicly apologized for the timing of the announcement.

But analysts say the incident was a reminder to both the Obama administration and the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the many obstacles to forging any kind of enduring peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

'A Complete Disaster'

"It does feel like a complete disaster," says Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said the announcement was "clearly timed to embarrass Biden and Netanyahu."

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

"Netanyahu has to be aware of his right flank," Cook said, referring to Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party that has control of the Interior Ministry, which approved the new buildings. The right-wing religious group insists that Jerusalem should not be included in any negotiations with the Palestinians.

Biden, meeting with Palestinian leaders on Wednesday, repeated his criticism of Israel's action and said the United States would hold both Israel and the Palestinians responsible for any steps that make peace more difficult to achieve.

But Biden's week in the region clearly wasn't what the White House had in mind. Analysts say this is what was supposed to have happened during Biden's visit:

He was supposed to tamp down any anxiety in Israel about Washington's commitment to the Jewish state. That he did, with reassuring words for Israel on Tuesday: "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." He also stressed the U.S. determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

He was also supposed to sound a note of confidence and optimism over plans by Israelis and Palestinians to embark on indirect negotiations. "A moment of opportunity," is what he called it.

Then, the announcement about the new buildings came.

Netanyahu Ambushed By The Far Right?

Senior Israeli officials claimed they, too, were ambushed by the Interior Ministry's announcement, and that Netanyahu had only learned about the expansion shortly before it was announced.

Biden called it "precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now." According to news reports, he kept the prime minister and his wife waiting for an hour and a half before finally joining them for dinner Tuesday.

President Obama has been more vocal than most U.S. presidents on Israeli settlement expansion. His administration has called on Israel to stop all settlement building in order to restart peace talks. But the Israelis only agreed to halt expansion in the West Bank, not east Jerusalem, which Israel considers its undivided capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

Analysts say the settlement decision was a shot across the bow, not only at Washington, but at Netanyahu and his coalition partners.

"If Netanyahu is at all serious about talks with the Palestinian Authority, this will be just the beginning of his coalition woes," writes Haim Malka, senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Palestinians responded with dismay. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad called the Israeli announcement damaging to relations. "This definitely undermines confidence in prospects of the political process which we are all working very hard on," Fayyad said.

And it makes U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell's job that much harder, analysts say. He was supposed to begin his shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem and Ramallah this week.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat questioned how the Palestinians could move forward, calling it "a really disastrous situation."

It was also a humiliation for the Obama administration, in particular for Biden, says Cook.

"This is particularly appalling because Biden is a real friend of Israel, if ever there was one," he said. And after the incident, "you can understand President Obama being circumspect about visiting Israel," Cook said.

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