Plan to construct new homes mars Biden trip to Israel


AS US vice president Joe Biden wrapped up a day of talks with Israeli leaders yesterday, it was revealed that 1,600 new homes would be built for Jews in east Jerusalem.

Clearly embarrassed by the timing of the announcement, the office of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed to know nothing about the decision.

Interior ministry officials confirmed the homes would be constructed at the disputed Ramat Shlomo neighbourhood on land captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, describing the timing as coincidental.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is expected to express Palestinian anger over the decision when he meets Mr Biden in Ramallah today.

Mr Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said the construction was a “dangerous decision that jeopardises peace talks before they even got under way”. Israel has implemented a 10-month ban on settlement building in the West Bank, but refused Palestinian demands to extend the moratorium to predominantly-Arab east Jerusalem.

This latest announcement followed the Israeli decision on Monday, just hours before the arrival of Mr Biden in the country, to construct 112 new homes in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit in what was termed by officials in Jerusalem as a “permissible exception” to the construction ban.

Mr Biden yesterday welcomed the decision by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to engage in indirect “proximity” talks , with US envoy George Mitchell mediating between the sides.

After talks with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden said there was now a “moment of real opportunity” for peace. He expressed hope the proximity talks would develop into direct bilateral negotiations resulting in the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Mr Biden reiterated Washington’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security”. He promised the US “will always stand with those who take risks for peace” and added that Mr Netanyahu was willing to do that, and he hoped and expected the Palestinians would be prepared to do so too. Mr Netanyahu said Israel’s security priorities were ensuring that Iran did not build nuclear weapons and establishing peace with the Palestinians.

According to Israeli political sources, Mr Biden made it clear Washington did not want Israel to risk military action against Iran while the US was still seeking international support for stepped-up sanctions against Teheran.

Mr Netanyahu gave the vice president a certificate for trees planted in memory of his mother who died in January, aged 92.

“My love for your country was watered by this Irish lady, who was proudest of me when I was working with and for the security of Israel,” Mr Biden replied.

Israel has agreed to allow EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to cross into Gaza during her visit to Israel later this month. Until now, Israel had prevented foreign diplomats from crossing the border as part of its blockade against the Hamas-controlled territory.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin travelled to Gaza via Egypt during his visit last week.