U.S. Vice President Joe Biden flatly condemned a years-old city construction project in Israel's capital late Tuesday, saying it is “undermining the trust” needed to jump-start final status talks with the Palestinian Authority.
“I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,”
Biden said in a prepared statement. “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.”
The term “proximity talks” is the new phrase that refers to final status negotiations between Israel and the PA, so called because the Obama administration will now be serving as an intermediary. PA Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas and his aides have refused to meet for direct talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu and other top government officials and have gone back to the pre Oslo Agreements way of "speaking" to Israel.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also slammed the government's approval of the project, issuing a statement Wednesday that said “the settlement activity is contrary to Israel's obligations under the Roadmap, and undermines any movement towards a viable peace process.”
The Speaker of the Knesset, MK Ruby Rivlin, reacted by supporting Israel's right to build in Jerusalem, as did other right wing MK's.
According to the Interior Ministry, which also issued a statement Tuesday night, the authorization for the project, a plan by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee to build 1,600 housing units in eastern Jerusalem, was routine. Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the announcement had been an ordinary "procedural matter," and not a deliberate attempt to insult Biden or anyone else. He added that although Jerusalem is not part of the building freeze announced by Netanyahu in November, so that the building will take place in the nation's capital, the timing was regrettable and he would have delayed the announcement had he been aware it was coming up. The opposition Kadima party condemned the decision.
The project, slated for the hareidi-religious neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, had been on the table for more than three years, did not require approval of the prime minister, and has been submitted for public comment – a 60-day process. It is still subject to final approval, and still must be reviewed by the committee. If after that process it passes muster, the project will extend the existing neighborhood by adding an access road from the west, upgrading the current entrance road, and adding apartments on the southeastern side. Many of the apartments are meant for public housing. Each apartment will be approximately 120 square meters (1,290 square feet). The total project will comprise some 580 dunams (143 acres).
The Interior Ministry said in its statement that Netanyahu had been unaware of the plan and its timing.
Biden's statement was issued at the close of his second day in the region on a visit that was promoted primarily as confidence-building mission meant to emphasize America's support for Israel. “There is no space between us,” Biden told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Jerusalem on Monday.
The prime minister responded by telling journalists following their two-hour meeting that the American vice president was “a real friend to me, and a real friend to Israel and to the Jewish people.” Biden is the latest in a parade of American officials to arrive in Israel in recent weeks on a mission to keep the Netanyahu administration in line with American policy on Iran and talks with the PA.
Last November, Netanyahu responded to pressure from the White House by authorizing a freeze on construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. However, he was unwilling to extend that freeze to the neighborhoods of Jerusalem that were restored to the capital following the 1967 Six Day War -- a point of contention with the PA which has refused to resume talks with Israel unless the freeze is declared permanent and includes Jerusalem.