JERUSALEM Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday condemned Israeli plans to build 1,600 more homes on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood, announced in the middle of his visit to help revive peace negotiations.
Israel's refusal to stop settlement building despite U.S. urging has been a major obstacle to a resumption of the talks, and the announcement put Biden in an uncomfortable position ahead of a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units," Biden said in a statement issued after he arrived 90 minutes late for a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He said the blueprint for Ramat Shlomo, a religious Jewish settlement in an area of the West Bank annexed to Jerusalem by Israel, "undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel."
The Palestinians had dropped a demand that Israel freeze settlement building and agreed to up to four months of indirect negotiations after receiving Arab League endorsement last week.
"Israel is not interested in negotiations, nor in peace," Abbas aide Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters, adding that the Ramat Shlomo project "will lead to negotiations being obstructed."
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads a religious party in Netanyahu's governing coalition and is responsible for the plan's announcement, described its timing as happenstance.
"There was certainly no intention to provoke anyone, and certainly not to come along and hurt the vice president of the United States," Yishai told Israel's Channel One television.
"Final approval (for the project) will take another few months, if it is approved, and I agree that the timing (of the announcement) should have been in another two or three weeks."
U.S. President Barack Obama's envoy George Mitchell is due back in the region next week to try to set the structure and scope of the "proximity talks," in which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet separately with an American mediator.
In private meetings with U.S. officials, Israel has objected to dealing with core issues such as borders and the future of Jerusalem in the indirect talks, a key Palestinian demand. Israel has suggested the talks be held in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah rather than in a venue such as Washington.
At an earlier press event alongside Biden, Netanyahu said:
"I know that this has been difficult and has required a great deal of patience, but I'm pleased that these efforts are beginning to bear fruit and we have to be persistent and purposeful in making sure that we get to those direct negotiations that will enable us to resolve this conflict."
Netanyahu repeated an Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. They have rejected that.
At the same event, Biden hailed a "moment of real opportunity" and said both sides would have to make "historically bold commitments" for peace.
The Obama administration welcomed Netanyahu's institution in November of a partial 10-month building settlement freeze.
But it has voiced misgivings about continued building within Israel's eastern Jerusalem municipality boundaries, which are not recognized internationally. These areas, including Ramat Shlomo, were exempted from Netanyahu's moratorium.
Biden plans to see Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday.
Another focus of the Biden visit has been Iran, whose nuclear programme the United States wants reined in through diplomacy. World powers are mindful, however, of Israel's threats to attack its arch-foe pre-emptively as a last resort.
"We're determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we're working with many countries around the world to convince Tehran to meet its international obligations and cease and desist," Biden said at his appearance with Netanyahu.
"There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security."
Netanyahu voiced appreciation for U.S. efforts to secure backing for tougher sanctions against Iran. Neither he nor Biden commented on widespread expectation that the U.S. vice president would ask Israel not to try to tackle Iran unilaterally.
"The stronger those sanctions are, the more likely it will be that the Iranian regime will have to choose between advancing its nuclear programme and advancing the future of its own permanence," Netanyahu said.
Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear power, has called for sanctions to cripple Iran's trade in oil and gas. Iran says its nuclear ambitions are for energy only.
(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)