American Vice-President Joe Biden was received with red carpet treatment at the Palestinian Presidential Headquarters in the Muqata’a in Ramallah today — by polite and mildly-friendly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and an irritated and angry, even sullen, Palestinian negotiating team.
As Biden was leaving the Muqata’a more than three hours later, Yasser Abed Rabbo (Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and now also head of Palestinian Television and Radio), was asked (in English) what had happened during the visit. He replied: “No comment” — then turned and walked away.
The Chief Palestinian negotiator, Sa’eb Erekat, was asked if negotiations had started during this meeting, and replied curtly: “No”.
An hour and a half before Biden’s arrival, the noise of the air cover being provided for the American vice-presidential visit grew noticeable.
The sirens of police cars escorting Biden’s convoy announced his arrival in the courtyard of the Muqata’a at 12h32. As his big American black terrorist-proof sedan pulled up to the edge of the Palestinian red carpet, the American vice-president began with the body language. After exchanging greetings, the two men walked side by side on the red carpet, while a Palestinian Presidential honor guard stood lined on both sides in full dress uniform (olive suits with gold shoulder braid), holding their rifles at salute. As they moved toward the door, Biden put one arm completely around the back of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and grabbed his shoulder. Then, Biden’s other arm moved in front, across Abu Mazen’s chest, in a full-circle clinch, and he patted Abu Mazen on the lapel. Abu Mazen did not seem to mind.
[On the 9 pm Palestinian Television news, video footage from Bethlehem — completely across on the other side of Jerusalem from Ramallah — showed that Biden earlier did half of the same maneuver with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Biden moved his left arm around Fayyad’s back and grabbed his shoulder. then letting his hand linger there for a few steps. Salam Faayad did not seem to mind, either…. Fayyad reportedly said that Palestinians appreciated Biden’s “strong statement of condemnation” yesterday, after the Israeli Interior Ministry announced approval of plans to expand by an additional 1,600 housing units the Ramat Shlomo settlement next to the East Jerusalem village of Shuafat.]
At the end of the red carpet, Biden does a politician’s expert swivel around Abu Mazen, and the two men turn to shake hands while facing the photographers and cameramen. Biden waved and said, “Thank you all”.
The American Vice-President’s day began at his hotel in Jerusalem with a 7:30 am breakfast with Quartet Special Envoy Tony Blair. For his trip to the West Bank, he was not accompanied by Dr. Jill Biden.
Just after 2 pm, journalists who had been waiting in the Muqata’s new “press center” were permitted to walk across to the room where Biden and Abu Mazen were scheduled to make post-visit statements at 2:30. Journalists had been advised in advance that no questions would be allowed.
The chairs in the room were arranged, as usual, on two sides of an aisle. This time, however, the first three rows were reserved seating, and only two rows on each side were available for the press. (One Palestinian journalist joked that the three front rows were for Presidential security.)
At 2:20, the blue carpet on the speaker’s podium was vaccumed for one last time.
At about 2:45, after the entrance of senior aides, the two principals finally appeared.
Abu Mazen said that “the decision of the Israeli government announced over the last two days constitute an undermining of confidence and all efforts to launch indirect negotiations … and we ask that these decisions be revoked … I reiterate that the Palestinians remain committed to peace as a strategic option”.
The Palestinian President said, “I would like to address the Israeli people: the time has come for peace … a two-state solution, with the borders those of 4 June 1967, and East Jerusalem as our capital”.
It was important, Abbas said, to speak about “the siege on the Gaza Strip … where 25,000 houses have been reduced to rubble, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are still without shelter”. Abbas asked that UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency) be allowed to bring construction materials into Gaza.
Then, he called on the Israeli government not to waste this opportunity to make peace, and “to stop construction of settlements, and its imposed activities on the ground”.
Biden said that “our administration is fully committed to the Palestinian people and a Palestinian state that is independent, viable, and contiguous … there is no viable alternative to a two-state solution … [and] this is also in U.S. interests”, he added.
“Overcoming the divide between Israelis and Palestinians can only be achieved via negotiations … and the U.S. pledges to play an active and sustained role in these talks”, Biden said.
The decision announced yesterday by the Israeli government to advance planning
“It is incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations and not to complicate them,” Biden told reporters.
“Yesterday the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning [for new housing units in East Jerusalem} undermines that trust, and that is why I immediately condemned the activities”, Biden said. He indicated that the U.S. will hold both sides accountable for moves that undermine the moves toward peace.
He also said “we must find a way to improve the lives of Palestinians in Gaza”, so that they would not be swayed by “the false promises of extremism”.
Meanwhile, fallout continued after the announcement of settlement expansion that Biden condemned yesterday. The Associated Press reported that “Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office announced the latest construction plans in east Jerusalem, apologized Wednesday for disrupting Biden’s visit. But he said the problem was merely about timing, not substance. ‘We had no intention, no desire, to offend or taunt an important man like the vice president during his visit’, Yishai told Israel Radio. ‘I am very sorry for the embarrassment … Next time we need to take timing into account’. Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said the ministry routinely issues announcements of planning decisions immediately after they are taken. But this is not the first time that such announcements have dovetailed with visits by top U.S. officials. Plans for hundreds of settlement apartments were announced during the peace mission of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice”. This AP report can be read in full here.
Haaretz reported that “The Interior Minister said that he was uninformed of the district committee’s plan, because the matter was simply a routine, technical authorization. ‘The district committees approve plans weekly without informing me’, Yishai told Israel Radio. He further said that the committee could not have predicted that the approval would spur such a political storm. ‘A few days ago, hundreds of new housing units were approved in Beitar Illit, which is much more problematic’, said Yishai. ‘So if the committee members saw that those houses were approved without a problem, they didn’t think a technical authorization in Jerusalem, which isn’t part of the settlement freeze, would require the minister’s knowledge’. Yishai emphasized that even though he doesn’t see a problem with the actual authorization of the East Jerusalem homes, if he knew about it, he would have delayed the move by a few weeks. ‘If I’d have known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone’, Yishai said. ‘It is definitely unpleasant that this happened during Biden’s visit. If the committee members would have known that the approval would have escalated to such a situation, they would have informed me’, Yishai emphasized. ‘I apologize for the distress this matter caused’, he added”.
This same Haaretz article said that “Netanyahu told Biden during their meeting in Jerusalem earlier in the day [Tuesday] 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”. This Haaretz story is here.
In another story, Haaretz reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu “said he had been blindsided by the project’s announcement by the Interior Ministry, run by Shas, an ultra-Orthodox, nationalist party that is a key member of his governing coalition … Netanyahu ordered in November a 10-month halt to new housing starts in West Bank settlements but exempted those Israel considers part of Jerusalem and projects for Jewish homes in the eastern sector of the city captured in 1967. ‘Messages have been sent to Biden and the Americans that there was no intention to undermine him’, a senior Israeli official said. ‘We were genuinely surprised, just as surprised as the Americans’.” This Haaretz report is published here.
According to an English summary and translation of daily editorials, sent to journalists by the Israeli Government Press Office, Dror Eldar wrote in the Hebrew-language Ma’ariv newspaper: “I believe the Prime Minister’s people, who swear that he did not know about the tenders. This is even worse than the possibility that he did know.”
AFTER Biden issued his statement condemning the Israeli government announcement, UN Secretary-General BAN Ki-Moon issued his own statement.
UPDATE: The Arab League decided on Wednesday evening to withdraw support for the proposed U.S.-mediated “indirect” talks. UPDATE TWO – CORRECTION: It later became clear that the Arab League Peace Initiative Committee has recommended withdrawal of support for the “indirect” talks, but the decision will have to be made at the level of Foreign Ministers
Here is what U.S. State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley said today (Wenesday 10 March) in Washington — in response, of course, to questions from journalists (i.e., he did not volunteer this on his own):
QUESTION: Has the Secretary had any discussions with Vice President Biden on his trip in Israel regarding the diplomatic announcement?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that they have talked since he arrived in Israel.
QUESTION: And has she made any phone calls to anyone in Israel regarding that announcement?
MR. CROWLEY: Not today, as far as I know.
QUESTION: Did she make one yesterday?
MR. CROWLEY: Not as – I mean, she had a meeting with George Mitchell yesterday.
QUESTION: But she hasn’t spoken with anybody directly?
MR. CROWLEY: Not to my knowledge.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that. Can you bring us up to date on Senator Mitchell – former Senator Mitchell’s schedule and tactics or any details about what he’s planning to do next week?
MR. CROWLEY: He will be back in the region next week with stops – meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. I don’t think we – we’re not prepared to announce his particular travel schedule, but I think he’ll be there early in the week.
QUESTION: How much damage did this do?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Vice President made clear in his statement yesterday, this is precisely the kind of step that we continue to encourage the parties to avoid. It’s – it undermines trust and it certainly is not conducive with creating the appropriate atmosphere for the indirect talks to advance. But we are in discussions with the Israelis about this announcement and I’m sure that it will come up when the senator is in the region next week.
QUESTION: What does that mean, you’re in discussions with the Israelis about this announcement? I mean, the timing of it or what they actually announced? Both?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, the timing I think was highly unusual. But I think we’re focused primarily on what this action and the impact it’s had on the broad environment.
QUESTION: Can you just say – well, why do you think the timing is highly unusual?
MR. CROWLEY: I think –
QUESTION: I mean, I know why, but I’m trying to get you to say it. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Look, it would be unusual for an Israeli Government to take this kind of action while a vice president is standing next to the prime minister. But we are talking to the government and trying to understand what happened and why. And clearly, as we’ve said, we want to see the parties press forward with negotiations, and they both have a responsibility to avoid actions that we think undermine the process.
QUESTION: Do you think the Secretary feels betrayed, then, by this? I mean, this was highly –
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think – well, it is highly unusual. I’ll – but as to how it happened, why it happened, I will defer to the government of Israel to explain. But we – clearly, the Government of Israel has a responsibility, the Palestinian Authority has a responsibility, now that they have agreed to indirect talks, to take the appropriate actions and avoid the kind of actions that undermine trust.
QUESTION: Do you believe that Netanyahu and the government actually knew that this was going to happen on that very day?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’ll defer to the prime minister to describe whether this was expected or unexpected, but we’ve condemned the action. And that also is probably an exceptional thing to do with a U.S. leader in Israel, but we – obviously, it represents the seriousness with which we took this announcement. And both the Vice President in his discussion with President Abbas today and Senator Mitchell following up on that will continue to encourage the parties to move forward. We think this kind of situation is, in fact, the reason why we believe that they have to get into negotiations so they can put these issues on the table and resolve them and get to a formal agreement.
QUESTION: Okay. Has Senator Mitchell made any calls since the events of yesterday? And as a follow – not a follow-up, but a follow-up to an earlier –
MR. CROWLEY: I’m sure that between Senator Mitchell and his team, we have been in very close contact with the Government of Israel today.
QUESTION: Did Senator Mitchell sit in in the meeting with – that Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon today earlier? The deputy foreign minister was here and saw, I believe, Deputies Steinberg and Lew.
MR. CROWLEY: If there was such a meeting, I’m sure he was there.*