With indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians due to start within days, a new crisis is threatening to derail the peace process yesterday: Israel announced it had authorized the construction of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority reacted by warning it may call off the negotiations even before they begin, while the White House condemned the move.
The uproar occurred as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel in an attempt to kick-start the long-stalled talks, expected to resume in the coming days.
Israel's Interior Ministry announced that approval had been granted to build new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox community of 20,000 north of downtown Jerusalem, which borders the Palestinian village of Shuafat.
The program, authorized by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, is one of the largest construction projects Israel has launched in Jerusalem in recent years. The development would spread over an area of 580 dunams (approximately 145 acres) and include a new road leading to the neighborhood, public facilities and a park. The ministry said the plan is intended to ease the ultra-Orthodox community's housing shortage, and 30 percent of the units will be relatively small and inexpensive, aimed at young couples.
Interior Ministry officials rejected claims that the plan's authorization was intended to scuttle efforts to start proximity talks between Israel and the PA, or to compromise Biden's visit.
But Jerusalem city councilman Meir Margalit (Meretz) charged that the announcement's "timing is not coincidental - it is a response from Eli Yishai to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's declaration of renewed talks with the Palestinian Authority." Yishai, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
"The fact that Yishai can't wait a few more days, until Biden leaves the country, proves his goal was to give the American administration a slap in the face," Margalit said.
Ramallah sees a provocation
The PA strongly condemned the Israeli announcement. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said the move would derail negotiations before they had even begun.
"It is apparent that the Israeli government does not want negotiations, nor does it want peace," Abu Rudeineh said, according to the Ma'an news agency. "The American administration must respond to this provocation with effective measures."
Abbas contacted Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa by phone and urged him to speak with the heads of Arab states to formulate a concerted response to the building program.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee, told Haaretz that Israel's declaration shows "the Israeli government does not want peace, it does not want a solution ... There is no clearer message; there is no more provocative measure."
Biden will meet with Abbas in Ramallah today, and U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is expected to arrive in the region next week to conduct the proximity talks between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The U.S. administration hopes it can return to direct discussions between junior-level Israeli and Palestinian officials within a few weeks.
The talks are expected to deal with all of the so-called core issues: borders, water, refugees, security arrangements, settlements and the status of Jerusalem. Although the Arab League had set aside four months to allow the talks to progress, Mitchell said his administration is not operating according to a fixed deadline, and that negotiations will proceed as long as necessary.
Still, Mitchell said, he hopes Israel will take steps to build goodwill among the Palestinians in an effort to push the transition to direct talks. Possible gestures include the release of prisoners, removing certain West Bank checkpoints, easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip, reducing Israel's military presence in Palestinian cities and transferring certain areas of the West Bank to Palestinian security control.
Biden denounces building plan
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units," Biden said in a written statement. "The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."
Moments earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama's top spokesman, Robert Gibbs, condemned Jerusalem's announcement from the White House.
Netanyahu told Biden at their meeting that he had no prior knowledge of the decision to authorize the additional construction. The program, he noted, was drafted three years ago, and yesterday's authorization was only preliminary. It could take several months, Netanyahu assured his guest, before the program is granted final approval.
Netanyahu also told Biden that the planning and building councils are not under the government's direct authority, and that his administration tries not to interfere with their work. "No one was seeking to embarrass you or undermine your visit," the prime minister reportedly said. "On the contrary - you are a true friend to Israel."
Nevertheless, a high-ranking official in Jerusalem said, Netanyahu has "no problem" with construction in Jerusalem and has no intention of apologizing for building there.
But the official acknowledged that the announcement's timing was harmful to Israel's diplomatic interests. "We didn't want to humiliate Biden or sow division while he is in Israel," the official said.
At his joint press conference with Netanyahu yesterday, Biden urged the prime minister to make "historically bold commitments" in the interest of advancing the peace process. "The U.S. will always stand with those who take risks for peace," he said, adding that he believed Netanyahu was willing to do just that.
The prime minister responded that he is interested in shifting to direct negotiations as soon as possible, in order "to forge a historic peace agreement in which the permanence and legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel is recognized by our Palestinian neighbors, and in which Israel's security is guaranteed."
Netanyahu and Biden also discussed the Iranian nuclear threat, and both leaders agreed on the need to pursue further sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
A senior U.S. official said that both Washington and Jerusalem "are working on the assumption that we will reach a fourth round of sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council by late March or early April."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that he hopes the indirect talks quickly lead to more comprehensive negotiations that could produce a final-status agreement. Yesterday's announcement, he stressed, does not represent a new development.
Ramat Shlomo, he said, is an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood "very close to the Green Line, and these are housing units for people who are struggling and cannot buy elsewhere."