Biden blasts housing starts as ‘undermining’ trust

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Vice President Joe Biden denounced a decision to authorize new Jerusalem housing starts as "undermining the trust" that he needs to advance peace while in Israel.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," Biden said in a statement issued Tuesday, the second day of a visit that had been aimed at underscoring the closeness of the U.S.-Israel relationship. "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 "proximity talks" refer to a new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks the Obama administration had hoped to launch within the next few weeks.

Biden was referring to the announcement Tuesday by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee that it had authorized 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. The committee is jointly run by the Interior Ministry and the Jerusalem municipality.

A statement Tuesday evening by the Interior Ministry said that the authorization was merely "procedural," that the plan had been in the works for more than three years and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not have prior knowledge of the plan.

Under U.S. urging, Netanyahu has partially frozen settlement building in the West Bank, but has refused to include disputed parts of Jerusalem in the freeze. Palestinian spokesman called the announcement Tuesday "dangerous."

"With such an announcement, how can you build trust?" asked chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the Associated Press reported. "This is destroying our efforts to work with Mr. Mitchell," a reference to George Mitchell, the U.S. special Middle East envoy who is serving as intermediary for the talks.

"It’s a really disastrous situation," Erekat said. "I hope that this will be an eye opener for all in the international community about the need to have the Israeli government stop such futile exercises."

Until Tuesday evening’s statement, Biden’s visit had been going as planned, and he had said that there was "no space" between Israel and the United States when it came to Israel’s security.

Biden and Netanyahu made statements to the media Monday after their two-hour meeting in Jerusalem that reportedly focused on the Iran nuclear issue. The U.S. leader reportedly warned Netanyahu not to order a unilateral strike on Iran, and worked to get him on board with allowing U.S.-backed increased sanctions to have time to work.

Netanyahu called Biden "a real friend to me, and a real friend to Israel and to the Jewish people."

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