When Joe Biden arrived in Israel yesterday, he was probably expecting to have a nice, calm and relaxing trip during which he would celebrate the announcement of new indirect talks between Israel and Palestine. Little did he know that he would be welcomed by the announcement of over 100 new housing units in the West Bank. I wrote yesterday how the announcement was going to undermine the peace talks that had not yet begun, but little did I know, the Israeli government had more surprises for Joe!
While Biden was still unpacking, Israel announced plans for 1600 new homesto be constructed in East Jerusalem. The decision was made and announced by the interior ministry - led my the extreme-right Shas party - while the Prime Minister's office was apparently in the dark.
Meir Margalit, Meretz's representative to the Jerusalem city council, claimed that the statement was meant to disrupt the Biden visit, saying that he had "no doubt that the timing isn't coincidental," calling the announcement Interior Minister Eli Yishai's "answer to Netanyahu's willingness to renew indirect peace talks with the Palestinians."
"The fact that Eli Yishai couldn't restrain himself for another two-three days until Biden left Israel means his intention was to slap the U.S. administration in the face," Margalit said, adding that the announcement was "a provocation to the U.S. and to the prime minister."
Following a request for a statement by Prime Minister's Office, Yishai said in response that the timing of the announcement had no connection to Biden's visit.
Predictably, the US was rather restrained in response to the initial announcement of further construction in Beitar Illit with the State department saying:
On the one hand, it does not violate the moratorium that the Israelis previously announced. On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that both sides have to be cautious as we move ahead with these parallel talks.
When you are in talks of this kind, you have to recognize the interests and perceptions of the other side, and both sides should be cautious about actions that might be either misperceived within the region or that might be exploited by those who want to create obstacles.
Biden was more direct when reacting to the newest announcement:
I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. 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. This announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict. The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians and for Jews, Muslims and Christians. We believe 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.
Perhaps the Israeli theory here is to lower expectations for the indirect peace talks to a point where simply shuttling George Mitchell back and forth would be a major victory. Or maybe it is time for the US to take off the velvet gloveand stand up to Israel.
This post is cross-posted from Notes From a Medinah