U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday the Palestinians deserve a viable independent state with contiguous territory, in an effort to reassure them of U.S. support after Israel announced plans to expand a Jewish neighborhood in disputed East Jerusalem.
The Israeli move has overshadowed Biden's visit, meant to promote a new round of U.S.-led negotiations, and drawn Palestinian accusations that Israel is not serious about peace.
Israel apologized for embarrassing Biden with the timing of its announcement, but made clear it has no intention of reversing its plan.
Capping a day of meetings with Palestinian leaders, Biden told his hosts that the U.S. is committed to brokering a final peace deal - something that has eluded U.S. leaders for decades.
"The United States pledges to play an active as well as a sustainable role in these talks," Biden said. He stressed the Palestinians deserve an independent state that is viable and contiguous, meaning the territory should not be broken up by Israeli settlement enclaves.
"Yesterday the decision by the Israeli government to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem undermines that very trust, the trust that we need right now in order to begin ... profitable negotiations," Biden said.
It was a clear message to Israel that the U.S. expects a broad withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has given only conditional support for Palestinian independence and signaled that he wants to retain control of key parts of the West Bank, including Jewish settlements. The U.S., along with the Palestinians, consider settlements built on lands claimed by the Palestinians to be obstacles to peace.
The Israeli plan to build 1,600 new homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo was an embarrassing setback for Biden, who arrived Monday hoping to build on an agreement by both sides to resume indirect negotiations through the mediation of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.
The resumption of talks ends a 14-month deadlock and marked the Obama administration's first substantive accomplishment in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
Standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden reiterated his condemnation of the Israeli plan and urged both sides to refrain from actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks.
"It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations, and not to complicate them," he said
Abbas, however, said Israel's continued settlement construction, especially in Jerusalem, threatens the negotiations before they get off the ground.
"We call on Israel to cancel these decisions," Abbas said. "I call on the Israeli government not to lose a chance to make peace. I call on them to halt settlement building and to stop imposing facts on the ground, and to give the efforts of the Obama administration and Senator Mitchell the chance to succeed."
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad earlier Wednesday told U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday that Israel's new plan to build 1,600 homes in East Jeruaslem challenged Washington's efforts to get indirect peace talks underway.
"This is a moment of great challenge to the effort by the United States to get the political process going again," Fayyad said at a meeting with Biden.
Fayyad said Israel's action was "damaging for sure" and "definitely undermines confidence in the prospects for peace."
Netanyahu said he had been blindsided by the project's announcement by the Interior Ministry, run by Shas, an ultra-Orthodox, nationalist party that is a key member of his governing coalition.
The Palestinians, who had called for a settlement freeze as a condition for resuming talks suspended since December 2008, agreed this week to indirect negotiations with Israel under U.S. mediation, but no date, venue or agenda has been set.
Netanyahu ordered in November a 10-month halt to new housing starts in West Bank settlements but exempted those Israel considers part of Jerusalem and projects for Jewish homes in the eastern sector of the city captured in 1967.
"Messages have been sent to Biden and the Americans that there was no intention to undermine him," a senior Israeli official said. "We were genuinely surprised, just as surprised as the Americans.