Page last updated at 14:27 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Biden sees 'moment of opportunity' for Mid-East peace

Joe Biden says Washington has a total commitment to Israeli security

US Vice-President Joe Biden has said there is a "moment of real opportunity" for peace between the Palestinians and Israel during a visit to the region.

Mr Biden welcomed the two sides' recent agreement to start indirect talks, saying the US would back those who "took risks for peace".

He said the US was committed to Israeli security and determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed US attempts to boost sanctions on Iran.

Mr Biden is the most senior member of the administration of US President Barack Obama to visit Jerusalem.

At a joint news conference after talks with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Biden he said there was "no space" between the US and Israel on Israel's security.


Mr Biden said the cornerstone of Washington's relationship with Israel was an "absolute, total, unvarnished" commitment to its security.

He called on Iran to "meet its international obligations" over its nuclear programme. Tehran says it is purely for civilian use.

Jeremy Bowen
By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East editor, BBC News

Joe Biden is in Jerusalem to reassure the Israelis that Iran won't be allowed to have nuclear weapons, and to try to enthuse all concerned about the latest attempt to revive a peace process.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is most concerned about Iran, which he has compared to Nazi Germany. Iran denies it is developing nuclear weapons, but the US and Israel (and many others) disagree.

The latest talks with the Palestinians are a result of US pressure. Everyone I've spoken to here about them is pessimistic. The talks won't be face-to-face. Instead, the American envoy George Mitchell will shuttle between the two sides.

It is a sign of how bad things are that so-called "proximity talks" are being presented as an achievement. At least they were prepared to sit around the same table during 16 or so years of failed negotiations.

One leading Palestinian political figure, who believes the latest talks will fail because the US and others have not spelt out what they need to achieve, told me that Palestinians might be facing "a long period of pain and blood".

Mr Biden said the best long-term guarantee for Israel's security was a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbours.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel would continue to support the US push for stronger sanctions against Iran, and that he was pleased its efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were "beginning to bear fruit".

He said the goal of negotiations was a peace deal that included Palestinian recognition of the "permanence and legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel".

Mr Biden said he hoped the indirect talks would lead to direct talks, through which a two-state solution with "Israel and Palestine side by side" could be reached.

In recent days Palestinians have agreed to "proximity talks", in which US Middle East envoy George Mitchell is expected shuttle between the Palestinians in Ramallah and the Israelis in Jerusalem.

The Palestinians refuse to hold face-to-face negotiations with the Israelis unless they halt all settlement building in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians want their future state.

Israel has announced a 10-month suspension of new building in the West Bank, but the curbs exclude East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want their capital.

Hours before Mr Biden's arrival on Monday, Israel enraged Palestinians by approving 112 new homes in Beitar Illit in the West Bank.

Palestinian officials accused Israel of trying to undermine the talks.

It said the units had been approved before the start of the 10-month moratorium, and that they were an "exception", because of safety and infrastructure issues.

Caution urged

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told Mr Mitchell that the move put the indirect talks at risk, the chief Palestinian negotiator said.

"We cannot tolerate that each time we have discussions on peace-making the Israeli government tenders more settlements, more incursions, more provocations," Saeb Erekat told the AFP news agency.

Beitar Illit
Israel says the building in Beitar Illit is 'an exception'

The US said the move did not violate Israel's limited settlement freeze, but was "the kind of thing both sides need to be cautious of".

Close to 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are considered illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this.

BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen in Jerusalem says the US does not want Israel to take military action against Iran, which is much talked about in the region.

And correspondents say there is little optimism in the region about what the indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks might achieve.

Periods of direct negotiations over the last two decades have failed to reach agreement.

Mr Netanyahu's right-leaning government has taken a harder line stance on final status issues than that of the previous administration.

He has ruled out dividing Jerusalem, wants the Palestinians to recognise Israel as a Jewish state, and said he intends to maintain a presence along the eastern border of a future Palestinian state.

On Wednesday, Mr Biden will meet Palestinian leaders in the West Bank before travelling to Jordan for talks with King Abdullah.

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Business Day Biden reassures Israel of total commitment by US - 1 hr ago
The Independent Biden condemns Israeli settlement plans - 1 hr ago
Jerusalem Post Biden reassures Israel on Teheran - 6 hrs ago
Financial TimesIsraeli housing hits peace moves - 7 hrs ago
Reuters via Yahoo! Biden condemns new Israel settlement plan - 7 hrs ago
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