Israelis add to Mideast challenge
OK settlement at outset of talks
JERUSALEM - The US Mideast envoy said yesterday that Israel and the Palestinians will begin indirect, American-brokered talks as planned, 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 Biden landed in the region to promote negotiations. Israel’s decision to build 112 housing units on lands Palestinians claim for a future state highlighted the tough road ahead.
Also underlining the difficulties are sharp divisions between Palestinian moderates and militants as well as an Israeli government opposed to many concessions seen as necessary for peace.
George Mitchell, the US envoy, said 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 to do 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 Mitchell.
Israel authorized the new apartments in the West Bank despite a pledge to halt all new settlement building - angering the Palestinians just as Biden landed in Israel.
The announcement was made 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 construction insufficient because it excluded East Jerusalem and projects already under way.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Israel of trying to undermine the talks. “If the Israeli government wants to sabotage Mitchell’s efforts by taking such steps, let’s talk to Mitchell about maybe not doing this [indirect talks] if the price is so high,’’ Erekat said.
The Palestinians presented the US envoy with a document outlining their desired peace agreement - a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, with minor border adjustments. At a meeting with Mitchell yesterday, Abbas also raised the issue of the new construction, Erekat said, saying it “put a big question mark on what it is that we came to do.’’
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded upbeat after his meeting with the US envoy. “I believe we will succeed in advancing the diplomatic process,’’ he said. “But the diplomatic process is not a game, it is real, and rooted first and foremost in [Israel’s] security.’’
Later yesterday, the Israeli leader welcomed the new start to negotiations in a speech in Jerusalem, saying: “I hope the proximity talks will quickly lead to direct talks that would really allow the promotion of peace.’’
He stressed, however, that negotiations would only succeed if the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that Israel’s security be guaranteed.
Jewish construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is a particularly sore point with the Palestinians. When Israel announced its partial settlement freeze in November, it said exceptions could be allowed. And yesterday, 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.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Israeli officials had explained that the construction was approved before the moratorium.