JIM LEHRER: Vice President Biden today led the latest U.S. push for peace in the Middle East. It came as the — as Israel announced it’s building hundreds of new homes for Jews in East Jerusalem.
Margaret Warner has our report.
MARGARET WARNER: There was a vice presidential hug for Israeli President Shimon Peres…
MARGARET WARNER: … and laughter and a handshake for opposition party leader Tzipi Livni. And with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Biden reaffirmed America’s special relationship with Israel.
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.
MARGARET WARNER: The vice president’s trip to the Middle East comes just a day after the U.S. special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, announced Israelis and Palestinians have agreed to resume talking, but only indirectly, through an American mediator.
GEORGE MITCHELL, special envoy for the Middle East: We look forward to what we hope will be a credible, serious, constructive process that will accomplish the objective which we all share: comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli prime minister (through translator): I’m happy about the renewal of the peace process between us and the Palestinians. It is almost a year that we called to start the talks again with no preconditions. I hope the proximity talks will quickly lead to direct talks that would really allow the promotion of peace.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Biden said today the goal was ultimately to have the parties deal with one another face-to-face again.
JOSEPH BIDEN: We hope that these talks will lead, and they must lead, eventually, to negotiations or direct discussions between the parties. The goal is obviously to resolve the final status issues and to achieve a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine living side by side.
MARGARET WARNER: The two sides have engaged in direct talks off and on over many years in the past. But the Palestinians broke them off 16 months ago, after the Israelis’ incursion into Gaza.
Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, a veteran of Middle East coverage, said the onset of indirect talks now doesn’t offer much to celebrate.
GLENN KESSLER, The Washington Post: What it is, is, it’s a step backwards. After 17 years of direct talks, you now have a situation where the two parties are not even going to be talking to each other.
It’s because the two sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, have no trust that either side is willing or able to make an agreement, and you have a period of unusual calm in Israel and the West Bank, which has reduced any real pressure to make an agreement right now.
MARGARET WARNER: The Palestinians say they won’t negotiate directly until Israel stops building settlements in disputed areas. The Israelis did impose a partial moratorium, but not a complete freeze. Just today, the government approved 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem, and, yesterday, 112 more in the West Bank.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat cried foul.
SAEB EREKAT, chief Palestinian negotiator: The Israeli government approval of 112 housing units in the settlement of Beitar Illit just shows how much of a hoax the so-called moratorium on settlements is.
MARGARET WARNER: And, late today, Vice President Biden also condemned the plan for new homes in East Jerusalem.
In a written statement, the vice president said, “The substance and timing of the announcement is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”
Violence also has erupted between Israelis and Palestinians in recent days over another land issue. In February, the Israeli government added two West Bank locations to its list of historic heritage sites, a move viewed by the Palestinians as a provocation.
There was another dimension to the talks between Mr. Biden and the Israeli prime minister: Iran. Israel backs Washington’s push for tougher international sanctions to target Iran’s nuclear program. But Israel also has reserved the right to take unilateral military action, a move the Obama administration wants to forestall.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I very much appreciate the efforts of President Obama and the American government to lead the international community to place tough sanctions on Iran.
JOSEPH BIDEN: There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. And, for that reason and many others, addressing Iran’s nuclear program has been one of our administration’s priorities.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Biden continues his Middle East trip tomorrow in meetings with Palestinian leaders in Ramallah.