- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2010

JERUSALEM | Israel and the Palestinians agreed to begin indirect, American-brokered talks, the U.S. Mideast envoy announced Monday — ending a 14-month deadlock in peacemaking and representing the Obama administration’s first substantive diplomatic achievement here.

The announcement, however, came just hours after Israel enraged Palestinians by announcing new West Bank settlement construction on the same day Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. landed in the region to promote negotiations.

Israel’s decision to build 112 new housing units on lands Palestinians claim for a future state highlighted the tough road ahead for those seeking peace in the region.

U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who is visiting the region, said in a statement that he hoped the indirect talks “will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible.” And in what might have been a reaction to the latest Israeli move, he appealed to the two sides not do to anything that could jeopardize the talks.

“We also again encourage the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks,” said Mr. Mitchell, who is expected to shuttle between Israel and the Palestinian territories over the next several weeks.

Israel authorized the construction of new apartments in the West Bank despite a pledge to halt all new settlement building, the government disclosed Monday — angering the Palestinians just as Mr. Biden landed in Israel for the highest-level visit yet by an Obama administration official.

The announcement came a day after Palestinians agreed to hold indirect talks with Israel, backing off from a demand that Israel freeze all building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem before they returned to the negotiating table. They considered Israel’s willingness to halt new construction insufficient because it excluded East Jerusalem and projects already under way.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of trying to undermine the talks even before they began. At a meeting with Mr. Mitchell on Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also raised the issue of the new construction, Mr. Erekat said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded upbeat after his meeting with the U.S. envoy Monday. “I believe we will succeed in advancing the diplomatic process,” the Israeli leader said. “But the diplomatic process is not a game, it is real, and rooted first and foremost in [Israel’s] security.”

When Israel announced its partial settlement freeze in November, it said at the time that exceptions to the slowdown could be allowed. And on Monday, the Ministry of Defense said an exception was made in the case of the ultra-Orthodox Beitar Illit because of what it called safety and infrastructure issues. The ministry said it was the biggest exception granted since the slowdown went into effect.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israeli officials had explained that the construction was approved before the moratorium.

“On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced,” Mr. Crowley said. “On the other hand, this is a the kind of thing that both sides need to be cautious of as we move ahead with these parallel talks.”

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