U.S. Vice President Joe Biden urged Israeli leaders on Tuesday to take bold steps for peace. The vice president is on a five-day visit to the Middle East to push peace efforts, and offer reassurances to Israel. The visit has been marred by Israel's announcement that approved the construction of 1,600 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem.
Until the announcement, Vice President Joe Biden had enjoyed warm words with his Israeli hosts. His visit began on an upbeat note. He arrived shortly after Palestinians and Israelis agreed to hold indirect talks for four months, ending a 14-month breakdown of negotiations.
Biden, the highest-ranking member of the Obama administration to visit Israel, called the resumption of talks a moment of real opportunity for peace. Speaking to reporters after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said the U.S.-mediated talks will be a vehicle to allay the mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians that has built up over several years.
"The goal is obviously to resolve the final status issues and to achieve a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security," said Vice President Joe Biden. "And historic peace is going to require both parties to make some historically bold commitments."
Israel's first priority for Biden's visit is to ensure continued U.S. support in efforts to contain Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
Prime Minister Netanyahu praised Washington's moves to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons that Tehran could one day use against the Jewish state.
"I very much appreciate the efforts of [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama and the American government to lead the international community to place tough sanctions on Iran," said Prime Minister Netanyahu. "The stronger those sanctions are, the more likely it will be that the Iranian regime will have to choose between advancing its nuclear program and advancing the future of its own permanence."
Many Israelis say President Barack Obama is less sympathetic to Israel than his predecessors, as evidenced by his administration's strong demands for Israel to cease the expansion of its settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Biden reassured Mr. Netanyahu, who is known to his friends as "Bibi," that bonds remain strong.
"A cornerstone of the relationship is our absolute total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security," said Mr. Biden. "Bibi, you heard me say before: progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel. There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security."
But the warm tone of the visit was marred by the Israeli Interior Ministry's announcement late Tuesday that it had approved the construction of 1,600 new homes in mostly Arab East Jerusalem. The land is disputed, with the Palestinians claiming the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future independent state.
The United States condemned the move. Vice President Biden issued a statement saying the timing of the announcement was the kind of step that undermines trust and runs counter to the constructive discussions he has had with the Israelis. Biden said Israelis and Palestinians must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them.
The U.S. vice president is due to visit the West Bank town of Ramallah on Wednesday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.