The White House officially announced on Monday that indirect Israeli-Palestinian Authority talks will begin as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel in summery weather and a political storm. PA negotiator Saeb Erekat protested Israel’s declaration that it will implement a years-old plan to build 112 residential units in the large city of Beitar Illit, located barely inside Judea and Samaria.
In a well-timed and planned schedule of diplomatic flurry, Biden touched down after the White House announcement, followed by a statement by Middle East envoy George Mitchell that he is returning to the region next week.
Hours before Vice President Biden’s plane landed, Israel announced it will build in Beitar Illit despite the formal 10-month building freeze. The government explained that the new units were approved years ago.
The media-heralded indirect talks in effect represent a step backwards to 16 years ago, when Israeli and PA officials sat in separate rooms and American mediators conducted talks. They concluded with the Oslo agreements, which literally blew up in 2000 with Arab suicide attacks and thousands of rocket strikes on southern Israel.
As American and Israeli officials smiled and expressed optimism on Monday, a member of the Israeli negotiating team in Camp David peace talks in 2000 held a different view. “Joe Biden’s visit ushers in the second act of the Obama administration on the peace process, after having failed entirely on the first act,” Gidi Grinstein told the Christian Science Monitor. “The Obama administration has done a lot to earn the suspicion of Israelis.... Biden is faced with an uphill journey.”
PA negotiator Erekat expressed his own suspicions by responding to the Israeli announcement of new homes in Beitar Illit with a threat to call off the indirect talks before they even began. "If the Israeli government wants to sabotage Mitchell's efforts by taking such steps, let's talk to Mitchell about maybe not doing this if the price is so high," he said.