03/10/2010, 00.00
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UN and US slam new East Jerusalem settlements

Generally negative reactions greet Israeli Interior Minister’s announcement, which comes at a time when US vice president is in the country to re-launch the peace process. Inside Israel, criticism is heated. For the Kadima party, it sets “a new record for diplomatic stupidity.” Palestinians call for concerted reaction by Arab countries.
Jerusalem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Moderate Kadima Party said the government’s announcement sets “a new record for diplomatic stupidity." Defence Minister Ehud Barak expressed his anger over the “unwarranted” announcement. Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said it was a "big error in government bureaucracy that should never have happened." All three reflect prevailing reactions in Israel over the decision by Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, from the Shas Party, to authorise the construction of some 1,600 housing units in the north-east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo.

The criticism of Labour members of the Israeli government echoes the condemnation by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who reiterated, “that settlements are illegal under international law”, and the protest by the US Vice President Joe Biden, who has been in Israel since Monday trying to revive the peace process.

In a written statement Biden said, “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.”

As expected, Palestinians reacted angrily to the announcement. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called it a “provocation”, and urged the United States to respond “with effective measures.”

Biden’s presence in Israel (pictured with Netanyahu) makes Israel’s decision even worse. The prime minister reportedly promised Biden, "No one was seeking to embarrass you or undermine your visit—on the contrary; you are a true friend to Israel."  However, Jerusalem city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz) said that the “timing [of the plan] is not coincidental—it is a response from Eli Yishai to Netanyahu's declaration of renewed talks with the Palestinian Authority.” Indeed, “The fact that Yishai can't wait a few more days until Biden leaves the country proves his goal was to give the American administration a slap in the face," Margalit said.

On the day Biden meets Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinians are now wondering whether Israel's declaration shows that "the Israeli government does not want peace, it does not want a solution?”

Abbas for his part called Arab League chief Amr Moussa and urged him to speak with the heads of Arab states over forming a concerted response to the building programme.

The Biden mission is designed to launch “indirect talks” between Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt. It follows the breakdown of the peace process in 2008.

The vice president’s visit should be followed by further action by the US special envoy for the Middle East, George Mitchell, who is expected in the region next week.

Talks should focus on all of the so-called core issues: borders, water, refugees, security arrangements, settlements and the status of Jerusalem. Mitchell said his administration is not operating according to a certain fixed date, and that negotiations will proceed as long as necessary.

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