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Monday, March 08, 2010 10:06:06 PM, DPA
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Jerusalem/Ramallah: Israel okayed the construction of 112 apartments in a West Bank settlement Monday, a move that angered Palestinians a day after they reluctantly agreed to hold indirect peace negotations with Israel’s hardline government.
The move also comes as US Vice-President Joe Biden was due to arrive for a visit to Israel, the highest-ranking official from Barack Obama’s administration to visit the region so far.
During Biden’s visit, the US hopes to announce the restart of - indirect - Israeli-Palestinian “proximity talks”, to be mediated by Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, who was holding last-minute preparatory talks with the sides in Jerusalem and Ramallah Sunday and Monday.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, of the left-to-centre coalition Labour Party, authorised builders to continue the construction of 112 aparments in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit, south-west of Jerusalem.
A spokeswoman for his office said the project of 112 apartments had already been given the green light by the previous Israeli government of Ehud Olmert and its first phase had started before
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a moratorium on construction in the occupied West Bank in November.
She said the project was given “exceptional” authorization despite the moratorium for “safety reasons,” because it was dangerous to leave the construction site as is.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat condemned the move.
“We cannot tolerate that every time we have a round of negotiations, more settlements will be built. This will put a question mark on what we are trying to do,” he told reporters after Mitchell met Abbas in Ramallah.
“The president has raised this issue with Mitchell,” he added.
Asked when an announcement of the start of indirect talks could be expected, he said this was “premature.”
“Our discussions will continue,” he said.
He said Abbas received a letter of assurances from Obama over the weekend, which said the US was committed to playing an active role of mediator and, more importantly, that if the indirect talks failed, it would stipulate who was responsible.
Such a stipulation has been one of the demands raised by the Palestinians, who have been reluctant to enter into negotiations with the Israeli government of hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office just under one year ago.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Sunday backed the start of the US-mediated “proximity talks,” with a four-month time limit.
Intense negotiations between a team appointed by Abbas and the previous Israeli government of centrist premier Ehud Olmert were broken off some 15 months ago, just before Israel headed into
elections that saw Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud party return to power, while Olmert’s Kadima was sent into the opposition.
Biden was due to land in Tel Aviv Monday afternoon for a three-day trip that is also to include the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem on Wednesday, a statement from the US embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed.
He is slated to depart for Amman, Jordan, Thursday evening. The Cairo leg of his visit was postponed because Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is recovering from surgery in Germany, will be out of the country.
Amid the frozen peace process, Obama himself has thus far refrained from visiting Israel, or the West Bank.
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