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US and Israel dodge settlement confrontation

US Vice President Joe Biden accepts a gift from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu
Mr Netanyahu gave Mr Biden a framed certificate, but broke the glass before handing it over

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Jerusalem

During the vice-president's visit, Benjamin Netanyahu presented Joe Biden with a framed certificate but managed to lean on it, shattering the glass.

One Israeli newspaper had a cartoon showing an Israeli settler with a leaf-blower, blasting the shattered glass into Mr Biden's face.

The settler was presumably from Ramat Shlomo, where Israel has just announced it would be building 1,600 new homes on occupied land.

Ramat Schlomo

The Americans weren't buying Israel's explanation that this was the result of a slow-moving bureaucratic process which caught Mr Netanyahu and other senior officials unawares.

Immediately following the announcement, the vice president kept the Israeli prime minister waiting 90 minutes for an official dinner.

That was taken as a sign of Mr Biden's displeasure.

It also reflected the time needed to work out the line to take with President Barack Obama about the settlement issue.

In the end, the Americans seem to have acquiesced in a face-saving formula drawn up by Mr Netanyahu.

Warm speech

This says procedures will be put in place so that in future such announcements are not made at sensitive junctures in the peace process.

It also states that building at Ramat Shlomo will not start for several years.

In his speech in Tel Aviv, Mr Biden seized on this to say that negotiations should start immediately - there would be time later to work issues such as Ramat Shlomo (along with the division of Jerusalem, control of the holy sites, what is to happen to Palestinian refugees and the final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state).

Mr Biden used his speech to reiterate yesterday's unequivocal condemnation of the Israeli decision to build these 1,600 new homes on occupied land.

He said it undermined the trust needed for negotiations to succeed. But the speech was nevertheless warm and non-confrontational.

Indeed Mr Biden began it by saying that he had been a friend and supporter of Israel's for the past 37 years as an elected public official.

'Don't bomb Iran'

An important section of Mr Biden's speech was devoted to Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Part of Mr Biden's speech was aimed at Israel's fears over Iran

Some Israeli commentators have raised the question of whether the United States will be able to fully trust Israel over the sensitive and vital issue of how to deal with Iran if Israel was prepared to humiliate Mr Biden over the settlements issue.

To dispel such thoughts, the vice-president attempted to reassure Israelis that they would not have to face what they assume to be an Iranian nuclear threat alone.

He did however plead for sanctions and diplomacy to be given a chance to work before any military action.

A big part of his private discussions with Israeli leaders is thought to have been about delivering the message: don't bomb Iran.

Mr Biden's visit was about resuscitating a peace process which doesn't seem to have much life of its own - indeed one key part of his speech in Tel Aviv was to tell both parties to the conflict that the United States could not want peace more than they did.

Talks in doubt

So it seems that the White House had decided to try to avoid another damaging and protracted tussle with the Israeli prime minister about settlements.

After all, Israel came out on top in the last test of wills, agreeing to something far less than the total settlement freeze that Washington - and the Palestinians - had been demanding.

All this leaves the Palestinians in a very difficult position.

Backed by the Arab League, they have said that it will be very difficult for them to enter indirect talks unless the Ramat Shlomo project is cancelled.

Yesterday, they were feeling pretty pleased that Israel was at odds with its main ally.

Now the Palestinians must decide if they will go along with the formula adopted by Mr Netanyahu.

For the time being then, the much-delayed peace talks remain in doubt.

POINTS OF TENSION IN JERUSALEM
Map showing west bank route
1 Gilo: 850 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Nov 2009
2 Pisgat Zeev: 600 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Jan 2010
3 Sheikh Jarrah: Several Palestinian families evicted in past 18 months to make way for Jewish settlers after court ruled in ownership dispute
4 Ramat Shlomo: 1,600 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Mar 2010
5 Silwan: Demolition orders on 88 Palestinian homes built without difficult-to-get permits - Israel planning controversial renewal project
6. West Bank barrier: Making Palestinian movement between West Bank and Jerusalem harder - Israel says it's for security



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