By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 11, 2010; 8:15 AM
JERUSALEM -- Vice President Biden on Thursday assured Israelis that the United States is "determined" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and urged Arab states, equally worried about Iran's nuclear program, to take steps toward peace with Israel.
Biden drew a link between the effort to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and that of trying to push forward peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
"They are connected indirectly, but there is a relationship," Biden said in a speech at Tel Aviv University.
Beyond reaffirming U.S. support for Israel's security, Biden told Israelis that "the status quo is not sustainable" in terms of the conflict with the Palestinians and pressed Israel to make a peace deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Rhetorically asking, "who has there been better to date?," Biden said Israel should act while it still has partners who share the goal of a two-state solution.
Biden welcomed a statement released by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's office shortly before he took to the podium that stressed that construction of 1,600 new homes in a disputed area of Jerusalem would not begin for at least a year.
The announcement Tuesday of building in Ramat Shlomo overshadowed Biden's trip, meant originally as a celebration of the U.S.-Israel alliance and friendship. It caused the Palestinians to balk at returning to U.S.-mediated negotiations on a final peace deal between the sides.
The approval of new housing forced Biden to condemn Israel. He made clear that the decision to do so was made in consultation with President Obama.
Netanyahu took pains to mend fences, saying he regretted the timing of the announcement of the construction, though not the actual building itself. Netanyahu summoned Interior Minister Eli Yishai on Wednesday "and expressed his displeasure at the timing of the announcement of another stage in the planning process of a Jerusalem building project," the statement said.
"In light of the ongoing disagreement between Israel and the U.S. on building in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu said there was no need to advance the planning process this week and instructed Interior Minister Yishai to adopt procedures to prevent such an incident from recurring," the statement, released by Netanyahu's media adviser, added.
Netanyahu stressed that final approval for the construction project wouldn't be given for a year but noted that it would not be canceled.
Biden hoped that would be enough to salvage indirect negotiations that would eventually deal with the future of Jerusalem. But the Palestinians said Thursday that they wanted the project revoked before talks could begin.
"What is required is that when [U.S. envoy George] Mitchell comes back is that he is supposed to succeed in revoking the Israeli settlement decisions in East Jerusalem in order to give an opportunity to launch the indirect talks," Reuters quoted Abbas's aide Nabil Abu Rdainah as saying.
Abbas told Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa on Wednesday that he had decided not to enter the talks for now. The Arab League had endorsed a four-month framework for the U.S.-mediated negotiations.
"The Palestinian side is not ready to negotiate under the present circumstances," Moussa said in Cairo.