Peace talks on rocky road

Vice President Joe Biden called on
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to start without delay despite Palestinian
insistence that Israel first cancel a settlement project condemned by
Washington.

Israel’s announcement this week, during
Biden’s visit, of plans to build 1,600 settler homes in an area of the occupied
West Bank it annexed to Jerusalem, cast a shadow over U.S. efforts to relaunch
Middle East peacemaking.

“The most important thing is
for these talks to go forward and go forward promptly and go forward in good
faith,” Biden said in a speech at Tel Aviv University. “We can’t
delay because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our
differences.”

The settlement announcement
embarrassed Biden, who said it undermined peace efforts, and infuriated the
West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, which had agreed to a U.S. proposal for
indirect talks under pressure from Washington and Arab allies.

Arab League Secretary General Amr
Moussa said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had told him he had
decided not to enter the talks for now. The Arab League had endorsed a
four-month framework for the U.S.-mediated negotiations.

But the State Department said it
had received no information to indicate that Abbas would drop out of the
planned talks.

U.S. officials expressed confidence
that despite the flare-up, the indirect negotiations could begin as early as
next week, when U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to return
to the region.

In his address, Biden gave no sign
Washington would press Israel to cancel the settlement project as the
Palestinians have demanded, and Israeli officials made clear it would not do
so.

Instead, he termed “significant”
assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that building at the site, a
religious settlement, would not start for years.

With no construction scheduled for
now, Biden said, negotiators would have time to “resolve this and other
outstanding issues.” He stressed that indirect talks should lead to direct
negotiations on key issues of Palestinian statehood.

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