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Middle East

Palestinians threaten to quit talks over settlements

US Vice-President Joe Biden battles to keep both sides at the negotiating table

US Vice President Joe Biden was last night struggling to keep freshly announced Middle East negotiations on track despite a threat by the Palestinians not to participate unless Israel reverses its latest settlement expansion plans for East Jerusalem.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas warned the Vice President in a telephone call that Israel would need to abandon its plan to build 1,600 new homes for ultra-orthodox Jews in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in the Arab eastern sector of the city, his spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters.

Mr Biden sought, in a major speech at Tel Aviv University later, to put the row with Israel behind him while urging an early beginning to "proximity" or indirect talks. "The most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go forward promptly and go forward in good faith," Mr Biden said.

While not resiling from his earlier condemnation of the plan, the Vice President described as "significant" an earlier official statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he had rebuked his Interior Minister Eli Yishai over the timing of the announcement – which caused serious embarrassment at the outset of Mr Biden's visit.

The Vice President pointed out that Mr Netanyahu had said the construction of "this particular project" would take "several years" and that meant "it gives negotiations the time to resolve this and other outstanding issues".

In a speech which emphasised the "deep friendship and kinship" with Israel felt by President Obama and himself, Mr Biden explained his condemnation: "Quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth." He also went out of his way to reassure Israel's leaders that the US is "determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

The Palestinians' chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who had warned that the Palestinians wanted the abandonment of the Ramat Shlomo plan before talks could go ahead, said after Mr Biden's speech that he did not want "any quarrel with the Americans at this stage". But he added: "The problem is not with the timing, but the settlements. The Americans should help us in getting this order revoked."

With Israeli newspapers speculating that further building projects involving 7,000 to 50,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem were in various stages of conception, there was no sign that Israel intends to halt the Ramat Shlomo plan. While the international community recognises Palestinian aspirations for East Jerusalem – which Israel unilaterally annexed after the 1967 Six Day War – as the capital of a future Palestinian state, the Netanyhau government has set its face against a division of the city.

Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told Israel Radio: "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and construction there will be carried out like in Tel Aviv or any other city – in every part of Jerusalem."

*Hamas yesterday released a British journalist they had held for a month amid allegations that he endangered the Palestinian territory's security. A smiling Paul Martin gave a thumbs-up after Hamas handed him over to British diplomats who drove him out of Gaza.