03/12/2010, 00.00
ISRAEL – PALESTINE

Tensions remain high as Israel shuts down West Bank crossings

US Vice President Joe Biden, who is in Israel to re-launch the peace process through indirect talks, accepts Netanyahu’s explanation that the construction of East Jerusalem settlements was slated in a few years time. Is this a green light for more settlements? Abbas wants the United States to make sure plans are scrapped.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Israel Defence Minister Ehud Barack ordered a 48-hour closure for all crossings into the West Bank until midnight on Saturday. Israeli police also said they would bar today Muslim men under the age of 50 from going to Jerusalem's Temple Mount compound. Both measures were taken because of the tensions caused by Israel’s plans to build 1,600 homes for Ultra Orthodox Jewish settlers on the outskirts of East Jerusalem.

Banning Muslim under 50 from the Temple Mount on Friday is nothing new for Israel. When it comes to border crossings in the West Bank, which thousands of Palestinians take every day to go to work to Israel, a ban is enforced on important Jewish holidays, but this is not the case this time. The closure was imposed, following a police assessment citing concerns about possible attacks.

Tensions thus remain high despite Israel’s attempt to downplay the new housing announcement made by Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishani, who leads Shas, a rightwing religious party.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu apologised to US Vice President Joe Biden, who is in Israel to jumpstart “indirect talks” between Israelis and Palestinians, as a prelude to restart the peace process, at a standstill since 2008.

For his part, US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell, urged Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, not to stop the “talks” as he did after Yishai’s announcement.

Speaking at Tel Aviv University, Biden said that Israel’s decision to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem has "undermined the trust required for productive negotiation”.

In light Netanyahu’s explanation, the vice president said that the controversy must be overcome and that the United States, which remains a friend of the Jewish State, is convinced that talks must resume.

However, this is easier said than done. In fact, Biden praised Netanyahu's assertion that actual construction in Ramat Shlomo would begin only in another several years, essentially giving Israel a green light for more building in East Jerusalem.

Backed by Arab nations, with the United Nations and many nations, like China, on his on the issue of settlements, Mr Abbas wants the building plans to be scrapped entirely.

This difference of opinion does not bode well for negotiations

Another dark cloud hangs over the situation is the Labour Party’s threat to quit Israel’s coalition government over the settlements.

Yesterday Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said, “Members of the Labour Party have more and more difficulty in taking part in a coalition government that they joined with the purpose of re-launching the peace process with the Palestinians.”

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