Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to alleviate new tensions with the United States on Tuesday, after an announcement that Israel will build 1,600 new homes in an ultra-Orthodox East Jerusalem neighborhood drew strong condemnation from the White House, and visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
The prime minister reportedly promised Biden “No one was seeking to embarrass you or undermine your visit - on the contrary, you are a true friend to Israel.”
Biden arrived in Israel on Monday in an attempt to kick-start long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which had been expected to resume in the coming days, but looked in danger Tuesday after a furious response from the Palestinians to the construction plan.
Netanyahu told Biden during their meeting in Jerusalem earlier in the day that he had had no prior knowledge of the decision to authorize the additional construction, and added that the program had been drafted three years ago and only received initial authorization that day. It could take several months, Netanyahu assured him, before the program is granted final approval.
Netanyahu told his guest that the regional councils are not under the political leadership’s direct authority, and that his administration tries not to interfere with their work.
A high-ranking official in Jerusalem, however, said Netanyahu has “no problem” with construction in Jerusalem and has no intention of apologizing for building there. The official acknowledged, however, 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.
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 renew proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, or to otherwise compromise Biden’s visit.
Jerusalem city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz) said of the plan, “The timing is not coincidental - it is a response from Eli Yishai to Netanyahu’s declaration of renewed talks with the Palestinian Authority.” Yishai, the interior minister and deputy prime minister, is chair of 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 provocation
The Palestinian Authority issued a strong rebuke of the Israeli announcement, with Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, warning 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 chief Amr Moussa by phone and urged him to speak with the heads of Arab states over forming a concerted response to the building program.
Yasser Abed Rabbo, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization 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 a no more provocative measure.”
Biden will meet with Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday, and U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is expected to arrive in the region next week to conduct the second round of 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 certain fixed date, and that negotiations will proceed as long as necessary.
Still, Mitchell said, he hopes Israel will take steps to build goodwill towards the Palestinians in an effort to push 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.
“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 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 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 Tuesday that he hopes indirect talks quickly lead to more comprehensive negotiations that could produce a final-status agreement. Tuesday’s announcement, he said, does not represent a new development.
“This is an ultra-Orthodox city very close to the Green Line, and these are housing units for people who are struggling and cannot buy elsewhere,” he said.