Fallout continues in reaction to Israeli announcement of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem

Fallout continues on Thursday, days after serial Israeli government announcements of settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Israel’s Kadima Party, led by former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is considering calling a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Kadima won the February 2009 elections by a narrow popular vote, but Livni was not asked by State President Shimon Peres to form the next (now the current) Israeli government because Peres thought the Likud party had a better chance of forming a viable coalition — which he did by assembling one of the largest and reportedly the furthest-“right” of any government in Israel’s history.

Today, AFP is reporting that “Israel’s Labour Party may quit the ruling coalition over the decision to build 1,600 settler homes in annexed Arab east Jerusalem, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon warned on Thursday. ‘Members of the Labour Party have more and more difficulty in taking part in a coalition government that they joined with the purpose of relaunching the peace process with the Palestinians’, Simhon told army radio. ‘The anger of (US Vice President Joe) Biden is justified. A grave error has been committed (by Israel) and there is a price to pay’, he added. This AFP story is posted here.

Of equal if not greater significance, Al-Jazeera television is reporting that Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa (Egypt’s former Foreign Minister) said he has been informed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that there will be no “indirect” talks for now, because of Israel’s recent announcements of settlement construction. Al-Jazeera is also reporting that Chief Palestinian negotiator Sa’eb Erekat has said there will be no “indirect” talks unless Israel cancels the decision to expand Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem by 1,600 housing units.

The Israeli Government Press office, which is part of the Prime Minister’s office, this morning sent out an email to journalists stating that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday (Wednesday), 10.3.10, summoned Interior Minister Eli Yishai and expressed his displeasure at the timing of the announcement of another stage in the planning process of a Jerusalem building project. In light of the ongoing disagreement between Israel and the US on building in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu said there was no need to advance the planning process this week and instructed Interior Minister Yishai to adopt procedures to prevent such an incident from recurring. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to US Vice President Joe Biden and expressed his regret over the unfortunate timing. The Prime Minister informed the Vice President that this specific project had moved through various planning stages over several years. The final approval process will in all likelihood take more than a year and the beginning of actual construction would likely take several years”.

It should be noted that the Israeli government said the same thing, to former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — but about the opening of Israeli police headquarters and expansion in the E-1 area between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, which is half way across the West Bank toward the Dead Sea and Jordanian border. But it didn’t take years — it took about three months, for it to open and begin functioning in the E-1 site in the West Bank.

UPDATE: When Biden finally did speak at Tel Aviv University at mid-day Thursday — he was over an hour late for a scheduled speech (followed by a Q + A session with students) — he praised the statement issued in Netanyahu’s name this morning (quoted just above), saying that [though it’s hard to read this in the actual full text we cited above] (1) PM Netanyahu announced that he was creating a mechanism to avoid what happened [the announcement about moving forward on the approval process for the 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem just near the Shuafat village neighborhood], and (2) the statement said that actual construction will take several years. Biden said, “That’s significant, because it allows time for negotiations to resolve the issue“. Biden added that it was also significant because “when it [the Netanyahu position, presumably] was announced, I was in the West Bank”.

Biden then said that “the U.S. will hold either side accountable for actions that inflame tensions or impede progress toward negotiations”.

He added that “These indirect talks are only that — the only way to resolve the final status issues ins through direct talks … but the process has to begin”.

Biden also said, about the current situation here, that “this is no way to live. The status quo is not sustainable”. And, he said, the creation of a Palestinian state will help Israel’s security…

Biden noted that the Israeli government announcements on settlements over the past two days were “very touchy subjects, both in Israel and in my own country, because it undermines the trust needed for negotiations … and this is why I at the request of President Obama condemned it immediately”. This remark was greeted with applause and cheers. However, Biden seems to have had such a sense of place that he felt it was unnecessary to mention that this is a very touchy subject also among Palestinians.

After Biden’s speech, Al-Jazeera television interviewed for reaction a member of the Fatah Central Committee, Sabri Saydem (a recent Palestinian Authority minister who resigned, as required by party leader Mahmoud Abbas, upon his election to the powerful Fatah Central Committee). Saydem took a generally positive view of Biden’s remarks, and called it a potentially “historic speech”. He said that Biden had essentially said that “walls and settlements are not sustainable, and that Israeli should come to terms with the reality that there will not be peace/security unless there is a Palestinian state.

Saydem also said it was significant that Biden had said Netanyahu had explained he is “creating a mechanism” to prevent the recurrence of the crisis over these Israeli settlement announcements — though, Saydem said, “it remains to be seen if Israel is going to comply with the American wish that it stop settlement activities, and stops constructing The Wall”. The days to come will be quite critical, Saydem said. He noted that the Arab League Committee has now recommended that “There will be no direct or indirect talks unless these 1,600 housing units are cancelled by Israel, and it [Israel] stops any further decision to be taken in the future” — and the whole policy stopped. And, he said, “The Palestinian street is not ready to go to any talks under these circumstances”.

Saydem also picked up on one of Biden’s anecdotes — Biden recounted that the first time he met the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (it’s only woman PM to date), she said to him during a “photo op” that Israel has a “secret weapon”, which was, she said, that “we have no other place to go”. Saydem told Al-Jazeera that “We Palestinians also share this secret weapon … and we have no other place to go, either”.

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