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Middle East Tensions Rise over Planned Settlements

March 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Israel sealed off the West Bank over fears that its plans to authorize more housing settlements would ignite violence, just as Vice President Joe Biden returned home from a visit meant to kick-start peace talks. Ray Suarez reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State Clinton rebuked the Israelis today over expanding Jewish settlements on lands the Palestinians claim. And street clashes broke out between the two sides.

Ray Suarez has our report.

RAY SUAREZ: The day began with Palestinians confronting Israeli police in Jerusalem. Trouble erupted despite a 48-hour Israeli lockdown of the West Bank and barricades and checkpoints to restrict access to Jerusalem’s Old City, site of revered shrines for three religions.

Protesters were enraged by this week’s announcement that Israel would expand settlements on bitterly-disputed land in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank.

The U.S. also confronted the Israelis today.

P.J. CROWLEY, assistant secretary of state for public affairs: The United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip.

RAY SUAREZ: State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained directly to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a telephone call. The source of Clinton’s complaint came Tuesday, as Vice President Biden was visiting Jerusalem, and shortly after he had reaffirmed U.S.-Israel solidarity.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel.

RAY SUAREZ: The vice president’s Middle East tour had begun hopefully enough, following the announcement of new indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, after 16 months with no talks.

But the Israeli move to expand settlements threatened to turn a delicate diplomatic moment into an outright debacle. Late Tuesday, the vice president denounced the decision himself in a statement, and he pointedly arrived nearly two hours late for dinner with Netanyahu.

The next day, on the West Bank, Mr. Biden again criticized the Israelis.

JOSEPH BIDEN: As we move forward, the United States will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did.

RAY SUAREZ: The Palestinians, backed by Washington, have demanded Israel freeze settlement expansion. Thus far, the Netanyahu government has agreed only to slow the growth of that building.

Still, the Israeli prime minister said he had not known of the pending announcement, and a spokesman apologized for the timing, if not the substance.

MARK REGEV, Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson: But we have to be clear. The West Bank is the West Bank, and Jerusalem is Jerusalem. Jerusalem is our capital, and will remain as such.

RAY SUAREZ: Back in Tel Aviv yesterday, Vice President Biden sounded more conciliatory. He said, sometimes, only a friend can deliver the hardest truth. And he argued both sides stand to gain from talking.

JOSEPH BIDEN: Building peace and security between a Jewish democratic state of Israel and a viable independent Palestinian state is profoundly in Israel interest — in Israel’s interest, if you will forgive me for suggesting that.

JOSEPH BIDEN: I have learned, never tell another man or another country what is in their own interest, but it seems self-evident. It is also profoundly in the interest of Palestinians.

RAY SUAREZ: The Palestinians sounded less than sure about the next step. After meeting with Mr. Biden Wednesday, President Mahmoud Abbas said the Israeli announcement might endanger talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said there’s been no final decision, but he warned more damage had been done.

SAEB EREKAT, chief Palestinian negotiator: This Israeli decision is not only an obstacle to peace; this is an attempt to undermine the efforts, the American efforts, to revive the peace process.

RAY SUAREZ: Back in Washington, State Department spokesman Crowley said Clinton made much the same argument to Netanyahu.

P.J. CROWLEY: The secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel’s security. And she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate, not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.

RAY SUAREZ: The Palestinians said today they will urge U.S. officials to pressure Israel into revoking the settlement plans.