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Despite Biden's plea, outlook shaky for Mideast peace talks

TEL AVIV, Israel — Vice President Joe Biden left Jerusalem on Thursday with a final plea for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to begin peace talks without delay, but Mideast officials acknowledged that the atmosphere for talks was "shaky and uncertain."

It's been less than a week since U.S. special envoy George Mitchell arranged for the indirect talks after a year of efforts, and Biden traveled to the region to bolster support. His trip was undercut, however, by Israel's decision Tuesday to announce a plan for 1,600 Jewish settler homes in disputed East Jerusalem.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that he wouldn't proceed with the U.S. initiative unless Israel revoked its plan.

"We want to hear from Mitchell that Israel has canceled the decision to build housing units before we start the negotiations," Erekat said.

The U.S. hasn't officially responded to his statement, but a senior member of Mitchell's team said that "frantic" interventions were proceeding behind the scene to assure that the Palestinians proceed with the talks.

"The resumption of talks has been at the top of the agenda for the Obama administration since he took office. We have devoted countless man hours to this, and we are not willing to let it fall to pieces now," said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. However, he acknowledged, "The situation is shaky and uncertain."

Mitchell released a statement over the weekend suggesting that talks could begin within the coming weeks.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has conditioned his participation in the talks on a vote within the Arab League, which agreed March 3 that indirect talks should resume. After an emergency session this week, however, the Arab League said the Palestinians weren't prepared to engage in peace negotiations under the circumstances.

Biden didn't address the latest developments in his open address to the Israeli public Thursday. While he urged Israel not to miss the opportunity for peace, he repeated his harsh criticism of the ill-timed housing announcement and warned that it mustn't be repeated.

"President Obama and I ... believe that in President Abbas and Prime Minister (Salam) Fayyad, men who I've known for a long time, Israeli leaders finally have willing partners who share the goal of peace between two states and have the competence to establish a nation. Their commitment to peace is an opportunity that must be seized. It must be seized. Who has there been better to date, to have the prospect of settling this with?" he said.

"But instead, two days ago the Israeli government announced it would advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. ... Because that decision, in my view, undermined the trust required for productive negotiations, I — and at the request of President Obama — condemned it immediately and unequivocally."

He said both sides were on notice from this point onward. "As we move forward I promise you this: The United States will continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks."

Biden said the "most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go promptly and go forward in good faith." He added: "We can't delay, because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our differences."

The content of Biden's speech was revised late into the morning, causing a delay of nearly 45 minutes. An official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office confirmed that at 11:30 a.m. — the very hour that Biden was scheduled to begin speaking — the two leaders were on the phone.

Netanyahu announced that he'd set up a procedure to avoid such provocative announcements in the future.

Obama's Democratic cohorts in Congress were upset with Israel's action but didn't seem eager for any change in U.S. policy.

"I thought it was very unfortunate timing for what we're trying to achieve," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a senior committee member, said the settlement announcement and Biden's treatment in Israel "didn't help, but it didn't hurt."

In the House of Representatives, Israel backers were somewhat more vocal.

"The vice president was embarrassed," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

"I don't understand it. It was a mistake," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a Foreign Affairs Committee member, "I'm one of the strongest supporters of Israel. I don't know there ought to be an artificial freeze on settlements."

However, he said, "The timing embarrassed a vice president who's been a friend of Israel throughout his career." Biden was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before he became vice president last year.

Asked whether the incident would change Congress' views, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a top aide to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would say only, "This was unfortunate timing," and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which has significant control over spending, said, "This is not helpful."

Israel's Ministry of the Interior, which announced the plans, is led by the right-wing head of the Shas religious party, Eli Yishai.

Yishai and other ministers have apologized for the timing of the announcement but said that Israel will continue to build in East Jerusalem, which it considers part of a united Jewish capital but Palestinians envision as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon charged that the Palestinians were using the issue as an excuse to thwart peace talks.

"There is no doubt that the Palestinians will try to use this to either stop the upcoming indirect peace talks or to extort more concessions from us, and I have explained to U.S. government officials that there will be no more concessions," Ayalon said.

There were numerous reports in the Israeli news media that anywhere from 6,000 to 50,000 additional homes were being planned in East Jerusalem, numbers that Palestinians said were unacceptable to the atmosphere of talks.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. David Lightman, William Douglas and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington)

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