JERUSALEM — Hours after the arrival Tuesday of Vice President Joe Biden to help launch indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 homes in a settlement block in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, an open rebuff that led Biden to issue a sharply worded condemnation.
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House.
"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel."
The announcement by the Israeli Interior Ministry came during Biden's first day in the region, the highest profile visit by an Obama administration official. It appeared to catch the administration off guard.
President Barack Obama repeatedly had demanded a halt in settlement construction in order to revive the moribund peace negotiations.
Just hours before the announcement, Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. was "optimistic" that indirect talks would begin a process by which a final peace deal could be reached.
"I am very pleased that you and the Palestinian leadership have agreed to launch indirect talks. We hope that these talks will lead, and they must lead eventually, to negotiations and direct discussions between the parties," Biden said.
He said his visit was meant to highlight the "unbreakable" bond between Israel and the U.S., especially on issues of security.
"Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel. There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security," he said
The Israeli decision to approve 1,600 new settler homes could torpedo the talks before they have even begun, officials from the Palestinian Authority said.
"This is a dangerous decision and will hinder the negotiations," said Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina. "We consider the decision to build in East Jerusalem to be a judgment that the American efforts have failed before the indirect negotiations have even begun."
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the move was destroying trust needed to proceed with the talks.
"With such an announcement, how can you build trust? This is destroying our efforts to work with Mr. Mitchell," Erekat said, referring to U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell. "It's a really disastrous situation. I hope that this will be an eye-opener for all in the international community about the need to have the Israeli government stop such futile exercises."
Israeli and Palestinian officials already had expressed doubt about the indirect talks, calling them a step backward after 17 years of direct negotiations between the parties.
Previous efforts at direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have failed, however, because of Israel's refusal to meet a key Palestinian requirement: a freeze on all building in West Bank settlements, built on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.
Officials in Israel's Interior Ministry added that the announcement meant nothing since the homes were being built in Ramat Shlomo, an East Jerusalem area that Israel doesn't consider part of its pledge last November to halt construction for 10 months in some settlements.
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the timing of the announcement was a coincidence and had nothing to do with Biden's visit.
An Israeli official in Washington, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said that Netanyahu had been surprised by the announcement by the Interior Ministry, which is run by the religious Shas party.
"The timing ... was not planned by the prime minister," the official said. "We're obviously not looking for any kind of disagreement with the United States."
A State Department official said that, as far as he knew, the U.S. government had had no forewarning of the announcement and was angered by the decision.
"We're not happy," said the official, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak for the record. "The fact that the word 'condemn' was used (in the Biden statement) should say it all." The incident is unlikely to damage long-standing U.S.-Israeli relations, but its effect on the hoped-for peace talks remains to be seen, he said.
Over the weekend, Mitchell said in a statement that Israeli and Palestinian leaders would engage in "proximity" talks, indirect negotiations through U.S. mediators. Biden's visit was meant to bolster support for the talks, which would end a more than yearlong hiatus in negotiations.
Though Palestinians see Jerusalem as a future shared capital, Netanyahu has declared the city to be Israel's "undivided Jewish capital" and he's encouraged Jewish building projects throughout Jerusalem.
Palestinian officials said the settlements would be a top issue on their agenda Wednesday when Biden travels to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
A Palestinian Authority official said that Israel's decision to announce the settlement building during Biden's visit was "suspicious" but followed a trend of similar announcements.
"Every time there is a high-profile visit by a U.S. official, Israel announces more settlements," he said. "One cannot help but conclude that Israel is sending a message here. They are telling America, 'Come talk, but we will do things our way. We will continue to build and we will do it in your face.' " The official asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the news media.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Middle East News at McClatchy's Middle East Diary
McClatchy Newspapers 2010