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Israelis stun Biden on visit

New housing plan a surprise to VP

Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk before a dinner  in Jerusalem on Tuesday.  (Associated Press)
Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talk before a dinner in Jerusalem on Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Paul Richter Tribune Washington bureau

JERUSALEM – In the midst of a high-profile visit by Vice President Joe Biden, Israel on Tuesday unveiled plans for new housing in disputed Jerusalem, a surprise step that embarrassed and angered the highest-ranking Obama administration official yet to visit the country.

Biden, who had come to promote new peace talks and to smooth the Obama administration’s strained relations with a longtime ally, instead denounced Israel’s plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem as a threat to the search for peace.

“I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem,” Biden said, calling it “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”

“We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them,” Biden said.

The sharp turn of events abruptly changed the tenor of the trip in its second day, coming just hours after the vice president proclaimed his love for Israel and declared enduring U.S. support. Biden’s visit followed a year of tension brought on by Israel’s defiance of the Obama administration’s admonitions on the same issue: housing settlements in disputed areas.

In Washington, the White House added its own criticism. But it was unclear how deeply the latest step would affect ties between the two countries, which have been strained by tensions over the Jewish state’s hardline security measures.

Aides said Biden raised the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a dinner given in honor of the vice president’s visit. U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Israel that such development in Jerusalem would anger Palestinians and further threaten prospects for peace.

Biden is to deliver a major address on U.S.-Israeli relations on Thursday. He will also meet with Palestinian and Jordanian officials.

However, Israelis sought to downplay any relation between Tuesday’s announcement and Biden’s visit, saying the housing plans have been years in the making and that Netanyahu, who appeared in public with Biden only hours earlier, had no idea they were being unveiled.

Nonetheless, the plans by the Israel Interior Ministry to build the 1,600 homes for Israelis in the Ramat-Schlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem cast a shadow over Biden’s visit.

Palestinian leaders consider such housing moves a threat to the future Palestinian presence in a city they hope will someday be their capital. Palestinian officials said the announcement was timed to Biden’s visit and called for a strong U.S. response.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas described the Israeli move as “dangerous” and said it would “torpedo negotiations and the American effort even before they start.”

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