RAMALLAH // The US vice president, Joe Biden, was in discussions with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank last night to rescue proposed Middle East peace talks all but wrecked by Israeli "sabotage". Streets were closed and security forces deployed in numbers as Mr Biden arrived in Ramallah under the cloud of Israel's plans for another 1,600 settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem.
That announcement followed an earlier one just before Mr Biden arrived that 112 new units were to be built in a Bethlehem-area settlement. Together they have ensured that his five-day trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, the most senior Obama administration official to visit so far, will be overshadowed by questions about the US-Israeli relationship, rather than, as had been touted beforehand, US strategy on Iran and the resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Indeed, the latter, indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks that were supposed to have started this week, have instead been thrown into doubt, with Palestinian officials warning that continued Israeli settlement building was threatening to derail the negotiations before they have started. Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO chairman, told reporters yesterday after meeting Mr Biden that Israel needed to end its settlement expansion plans.
"We call on Israel to cancel these decisions," Mr Abbas said. "I call on the Israeli government not to lose a chance to make peace. I call on them to halt settlement building and to stop imposing facts on the ground, and to give the efforts of the Obama administration and Senator [George] Mitchell the chance to succeed." Mr Biden, who had already condemned the Israeli announcement on Tuesday evening, told reporters on Wednesday that it jeopardised talks that the US has invested significant diplomatic effort in getting off the ground. "Yesterday the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin - profitable negotiations," he said.
Mr Biden held meetings all day yesterday in Ramallah, first with Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, and then with Mr Abbas. With both Palestinian leaders, Mr Biden underscored that the US was committed to seeing the establishment of a "viable and contiguous" Palestinian state. But it was the issue of settlements that dominated the agenda. According to a joke already doing the rounds in Ramallah, Palestinian officials had pleaded with Mr Biden to prevent Barack Obama, the US president, from visiting.
If 112 new settlement units were announced when George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, arrived and 1,600 units when the vice president arrived, Palestinian officials worried, how many new units would Israel announce if Mr Obama came to the region? Beneath such jokes, however, lie serious Palestinian concerns that the close US-Israeli relationship is an obstacle to chances for peace.
"There is a kind of charade going on," said George Giacaman, a Ramallah-based Palestinian analyst. "With every visit, Israel announces new settlements and the US condemns. But nothing happens. " Mr Giacaman said that while the announcement might have seemed like an insult to Mr Biden, the more serious problem was that such announcements weakened the Palestinian Authority and the leadership of Mr Abbas.
"The PA is in really bad shape vis-ŕ-vis Palestinian public opinion and bowing to pressure to agree to negotiate under these circumstances only undermines its credibility even further." Israel yesterday apologised for the timing of the announcement, Eli Yishai, the minister of interior, acknowledging that the announcement had come at an "unpleasant" time. "If I'd have known, I would have postponed the authorisation by a week or two, since we had no intention of provoking anyone," Mr Yishai said.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is also understood to have apologised personally to Mr Biden when the two had dinner on Tuesday night and assured him that there had been no intention to embarrass America's second-most senior official. Absent from either of those apologies, however, was any indication that the settlement construction itself was seen as problematic by the Israeli government, which has time and again affirmed its position that East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967, will not become part of a future Palestinian state.
"I believe Netanyahu when he says he didn't realise the announcement was going to be made," said Hillel Schenker, an Israeli journalist. "But this only reflects a policy in which Israel does not want to make any significant gestures toward Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem and instead aims at establishing more facts on the ground in terms of Jewish presence." Indeed, Mr Schenker said, the only problem the Israeli government might have had with the announcement, the "greatest sin", was that it might embarrass the Obama administration and Mr Biden.
Instant US condemnation apart, the announcement is unlikely to result in any immediate consequences for US-Israeli relations. However, it is not the first time that Israel has snubbed the Obama administration. Notably, the Israeli government last year successfully resisted what US pressure there was to agree to a full settlement construction freeze in occupied territory during negotiations with the Palestinians.
These "slaps" have added up, said Mark Perry, a Washington-based US analyst. The result is that, "Washington has almost no confidence that the Israeli government is actually interested in a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict". As for the mooted indirect, or proximity, talks, Washington is in the middle of a "learning process", said Mr Perry, author of Talking to Terrorists, that should lead to one "obvious" conclusion.
"The intransigent party here is not the Palestinians, it's Israel, and unless the US administration is willing to exact a price from [Israel] for the kind of things we saw [Tuesday], this process will fail." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org