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Announcement of Israeli Settlement Plan Overshadows Biden Visit

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (R) welcomes US Vice President Joe Biden (L) prior to their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, 10 Mar 2010

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has repeated his condemnation of Israel's decision to build 1,600 new Israeli homes in disputed East Jerusalem. Biden met with President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah as questions emerged on whether indirect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians will get under way as expected.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden appeared less upbeat than he had been at the start of his visit to the region on Monday.

Biden met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and reaffirmed the U.S. position that Palestinians deserve a viable independent state with contiguous territory. That is a prospect that Palestinians say is threatened by Israel's continued construction of housing for Jews in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The U.S. official repeated his condemnation of Israel's decision to build 1,600 more units in East Jerusalem.

"It is incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations and not to complicate them," said Biden.

"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 as well as produce profitable negotiations. That is why I immediately condemned the action," he added.

The Palestinians, following an endorsement from the Arab League, agreed this week to begin indirect negotiations mediated by the United States for four months. On Wednesday, there were questions on whether it is worthwhile for them to proceed.

President Mahmoud Abbas called for Israel to create the right conditions by stopping settlement construction and giving efforts of U.S. leaders the right opportunities to succeed. Mr. Abbas said Israel's settlement policy, especially in Jerusalem, is threatening negotiations. He said the Palestinians have asked Israel to cancel its recent decisions. The Palestinian leader assured Biden peace is their strategic choice.

Vice President Biden warned Israel and the Palestinians that Washington will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of the talks.

Many Palestinians are not placing much hope in the latest peace efforts.

Mahdi Abdel Hadi is head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in East Jerusalem. He tells VOA disappointment has grown since President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last June, in which the U.S. leader pledged support for Palestinian statehood and made a strong call for an end to Israeli settlement construction.

"Obama after [the] Cairo speech was up on the Palestinian and Arab agenda, expecting him to do miracles, i.e. to stop Israeli atrocities, to stop Israeli colonies, to bring Israelis to consensus and to share Palestine and the two-state solution," he said. "Today this is not there. All we see is verbal condemnation and statements, but the reality on the ground is that Israel is carrying on a strategy and policy and practices with no one to stop it."

Analysts say indirect talks still represent the best chance Palestinians have for moving forward with their plans for statehood.

The Arab League is due to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo to discuss a response to Israel's move. Israeli officials said the announcement of their decision to build in East Jerusalem was not timed according to Biden's visit and was not intended to embarrass the Vice President.

Biden is scheduled to be in Israel through Thursday, when he will deliver a speech at Tel Aviv University before going to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah.