- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2010

RAMALLAH, West Bank | An open diplomatic row during the visit of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has shined a spotlight on the U.S. failure to rein in Israeli settlement ambitions and deepened Palestinian suspicions that the United States is too weak to broker a deal.

Mr. Biden’s handshakes and embraces gave way to one of the strongest rebukes of Israel by a senior U.S. official in years after Israel’s announcement during his visit that it plans to build 1,600 homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Israel apologized for the poor timing but is sticking to its plan to build the homes, enlarging one of the settlements that have impeded negotiations with Palestinians.

The vice president on Wednesday assured Palestinians the U.S. is squarely behind their bid for statehood and urged the sides to refrain from actions “that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks.”

“It’s incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations, and not to complicate them,” Mr. Biden said, standing alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel’s announcement was widely seen as a slap in the face to its all-important U.S. ally. It stirred significant anger among U.S. officials and widespread skepticism about whether the Obama administration would have the courage or the backing to take Israel to task as the U.S. relaunches long-stalled peace negotiations. The future of those talks was called into question late Wednesday when Arab nations withdrew their support for them.

“This is a global message of American weakness and Israeli arrogance,” said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.

Mr. Biden condemned the Israeli announcement and pointedly arrived 90 minutes late to a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s oblique response to the row — that Mr. Netanyahu was blindsided by the announcement, that no one meant to offend Mr. Biden, that in the future the prime minister would make sure sensitive announcements are routed through him — did not appear likely to put the matter to rest.

The words of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office ordered the new homes — “I am very sorry for the embarrassment … Next time we need to take timing into account” — only reinforced the feeling that there would in fact be a “next time.”

Israel’s opposition Kadima party said it is planning a no-confidence vote in the prime minister in parliament for “destroying” the Biden visit.

Israel’s latest building plans came just as the Palestinians had reluctantly agreed to resume indirect, U.S.-brokered talks in the coming days — after a 14-month deadlock.

Capping a day of meetings with Palestinian leaders, Mr. Biden declared Wednesday that Washington is committed to brokering a final peace deal.

“The United States pledges to play an active as well as a sustainable role in these talks,” Mr. Biden said. He stressed the Palestinians deserve an independent state that is “viable and contiguous,” a clear message to Israel that the U.S. expects a broad withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a settlement. Palestinians fear Jewish settlement enclaves would render a future state untenable by breaking it up into pieces.

The new construction plan also drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt, Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world, and from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Late Wednesday, the 22-nation Arab League recommended withdrawing support for indirect talks between Palestinians and Israelis.

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