U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is visiting the Middle East this week as Washington steps up efforts to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process going again.
Biden’s visit culminates an intense effort by Washington to restart stalled peace negotiations. That effort is led by special Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who has been in Israel since Saturday.
“We look forward to what we hope will be a credible, serious, constructive process that will accomplish the objective which we all share: comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” Mitchell said.
That process has begun to move forward in the past few days. On Sunday, the Palestinians agreed to begin indirect negotiations, according to a plan that was endorsed last week by the Arab League. Israel also approved holding indirect talks.
Mitchell met Sunday and Monday with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Israel wanted direct talks, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said what matters most is that negotiations, even indirect ones, get under way.
“If there is a desire to get to direct talks through a corridor, then I think the sooner the better we cross that corridor and get to substantive negotiations, indirect negotiations,” Mr. Netanyahu said.
The U.S. push for a restart of the talks, and the apparent progress in resuming the negotiations, is occurring despite a flare-up of violence during the past few weeks.
Clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron were triggered by Israel’s recent decision to include two West Bank sites, holy to both Jews and Muslims, on the Israeli list of national heritage sites.
The Palestinians broke off negotiations last year in response to Israel’s assault on Gaza. They said they would not continue talks until Israel stopped construction on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of their future state.
Palestinian officials say although they will engage in indirect talks, they will not give up their demands.
Senior Palestinian official Yasser Abed Rabbo told Palestinian radio the success of the talks will depend on whether Washington is able to pressure Israel into stopping settlement expansion.
He said it will be a surprise if the United States deals with Israel and its long-held position. The aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said this could be the biggest disappointment and perhaps the death of the peace process.
Israel again angered the Palestinians by announcing the construction of more than 100 new apartments inside the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit. Israeli leaders declared a partial, temporary freeze on new construction last year. Officials said their decision Monday was an exception, due to what they described as safety and infrastructure issues.
Israeli commentators are calling Biden’s visit significant. He is perceived here as a powerful figure within the Obama administration, one who is well-acquainted with Middle East politics, having known every Israeli prime minister for the past four decades.
Aside from the peace process, the agenda for Vice President Biden’s visit includes discussions on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has been lobbying the international community for tougher action on Iran and what Israeli leaders believe is Tehran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons for use against the Jewish State.
Biden is due to meet Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to meet with Tony Blair, the envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East, and will travel to the West Bank town of Ramallah to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad.
Thursday, Biden is to travel to Amman to meet with Jordan’s King Abdullah.