JERUSALEM (AFP) – US Vice President Joe Biden was meeting top Israeli officials on Tuesday, throwing his weight behind a renewal of Middle East peace talks more than a year after negotiations shuddered to a halt.
“I hope the beginning of what is referred to as indirect or proximity talks, I hope it is a vehicle, a vehicle by which we can begin to allay that layer of mistrust that has built up in the last several years,” Biden said as he went into a meeting with President Shimon Peres.
“I think we are at a moment of real opportunity and I think that the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people, if everybody stops and takes a deep breath, are actually more in line than they are opposites,” he said.
Biden, the highest-ranking US official to visit Israel and the West Bank since President Barack Obama took office a year ago, was also due to meet hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
On Wednesday, he heads to the West Bank city of Ramallah for talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and he also plans to meet former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special envoy for the Quartet of key diplomatic players.
Both Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to the US-backed indirect talks, despite deep skepticism about the prospects for success.
Direct negotiations between the two sides have been on hold since Israel carried out a devastating offensive against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009, despite months of US efforts to relaunch the peace process.
US envoy George Mitchell spent the past days in the region to pave the way for the indirect talks, and plans to return next week.
“I think this early stage will be a little bit on trying to work on how the process will take place,” US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in Washington on Monday.
But Biden’s visit coincided with an Israeli go-ahead for 112 new homes to be built in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, a move that infuriated the Palestinians who demand a complete settlement freeze.
Israel said the project in the Beitar Illit settlement near Bethlehem was an exception to the partial halt of settlement activity that its government announced in November.
Abbas took up the issue with Mitchell on Monday, according to chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
“The president said this cannot stand. We cannot tolerate that each time we have discussions on peace-making the Israeli government tenders more settlements, more incursions, more provocations.”
Before heading back to Washington on Monday, Mitchell praised both sides for agreeing to start indirect talks and urged them “to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.”
In New York, meanwhile, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom urged UN chief Ban Ki-moon to lobby for an early resumption of direct negotiations.
Also on Monday, Ban confirmed that he planned to attend a meeting of the Quartet in Moscow on March 19 to encourage an early resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The Quartet groups the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations.
Biden, who is accompanied by his wife Jill, will travel on to Jordan on Thursday for talks with King Abdullah II.