WASHINGTON (CN) – Israel on Tuesday announced confrontational plans to construct 1,600 homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews in the East Jerusalem area slated by Palestinians for their future capital. The announcement came within a day of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to restart long-abandoned peace talks. Upon learning of the plan, Biden changed the tone of his visit, saying he “condemn(ed) the decision.”
Biden started his visit by lauding Israeli and American ties as “unshakable,” but changed his tone after the announcement, saying, “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units.”
“We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them,” he said.
The controversial move to construct an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood where the Palestinians want to place their capital for a future state came one day after Israel and the Palestinians agreed to American-brokered peace talks, and after more than a year of deadlocked discussions.
“The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now,” Biden said.
Israel’s Interior Ministry said plans to build the homes were three years in the making and that the announcement is unrelated to Biden’s visit. It also said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just been informed of the project himself.
Israel said in November that it would stop construction of new settlements in the West Bank for a period of 10 months but exempted Jerusalem, which it considers as part of its capital over the objections of the rest of the world.
George Mitchell, an American special envoy to the Middle East, appealed to the two sides to “refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.”
Biden had not been warned of the construction announcement and spent Monday praising the close relationship between the United States and Israel.
He is scheduled to stay in the region until Friday, where he is working for direct talks between the two sides. He has already met with Israeli President Shimon Peres, and plans to meet with Palestinian President Muhmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.