In a sharp statement, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, currently on a visit to Israel in which there has been a lot of schmoozing going on (but tomorrow he visits Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah), said tonight that “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem“.
Haaretz reported tonight that “The American vice president added that 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 and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel. We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them’, Biden said adding that the ‘announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict’, Biden said. ‘The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians and for Jews, Muslims and Christians’. Biden also said that the U.S. believed ‘that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world. Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues. As George Mitchell said in announcing the proximity talks, “we encourage the parties and all concerned to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks”,’ Biden said”. This Haaretz article is published here.
Earlier, in a move that only built up the importance and impact of the Biden statement in Israel, the White House spokesperson also said, according to an AP report, that “the United States condemns Israel’s approval of 1,600 new settlement homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday that Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Israel, would issue a detailed statement shortly”.
Earlier Tuesday, the Israeli Ministry of Interior approved the building of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood sandwiched right next to the Palestinian village of Shuafat in East Jerusalem. At one point during the day, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior denied that Ramat Shlomo was in “East Jerusalem” (he must have meant to say that they were in Israel’s unilaterally-declared Greater Jerusalem Municipality) — then issued a correction confirming that “the housing units in question are located beyond the Green Line”.
There are media reports tonight that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu asked the Minister of Interior Eli Yishai (of the Shas party, an Orthodox religious party) to issue a statement saying that the announcement of the expansion of Ramat Shlomo was not timed to coincide with Biden’s visit. The Minister’s Media Adviser sent an email just before 10 pm saying that: “The Jerusalem District Planning Committee today (Tuesday), 9.3.10, approved a plan which has been in the works for over three years. This is a procedural stage in the framework of a long process that will yet continue for some time. The Committee meeting was determined in advance and there is no connection to US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. Interior Minister Eli Yishai updated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the foregoing earlier this evening”.
The New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem Ethan Bronner wrote that “A statement issued in the name of the Interior Ministry but distributed by the prime minister’s office said the housing plan was three years in the making and that its announcement was procedural and unrelated to Mr. Biden’s visit. It added that Mr. Netanyahu had just been informed of it himself”. The NYTimes story is posted here.
Rory McCarthy, reporting in The Guardian before the Biden statement tonight, wrote that “The latest approvals were announced by the interior ministry, which said they had been passed by the Jerusalem district planning committee. A spokeswoman said there were 60 days to appeal against the decision. Ramat Shlomo, built 15 years ago, is on land captured in the West Bank in 1967 and then annexed to Israel in a move not recognised by the international community. Two years ago, when the Israeli government approved 1,300 new homes in the same settlement, the then US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, criticised the move as having a ‘negative effect’ on peace talks”. This article can be read in full here.
Of course, today’s announcement of 1,600 new housing units (calculate 5 people per unit) was not the only action taken — but to keep track of these developments is more than a full-time job, for more than one person …