Israel to add 1,600 E. Jerusalem homes

JERUSALEM — Hours after the arrival Tuesday of Vice President Joe Biden to help launch indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 homes in a settlement block in mostly Arab East Jerusalem, an open rebuff that led Biden to issue a sharply worded condemnation.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem," Biden said in a statement issued by the White House.

"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 and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel."

The announcement by the Israeli Interior Ministry came during Biden's first day in the region, the highest-profile visit by an Obama administration official. It appeared to catch the administration off-guard.

President Obama repeatedly had demanded a halt in settlement construction in order to revive the moribund peace negotiations.

Just hours before the announcement, Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the U.S. was "optimistic" that indirect talks would begin a process by which a final peace deal could be reached.

"I am very pleased that you and the Palestinian leadership have agreed to launch indirect talks. We hope that these talks will lead, and they must lead eventually, to negotiations and direct discussions between the parties," Biden said.

The Israeli decision to approve 1,600 new settler homes could torpedo the talks before they have even begun, officials from the Palestinian Authority said.

"This is a dangerous decision and will hinder the negotiations," said Palestinian Authority spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina. "We consider the decision to build in East Jerusalem to be a judgment that the American efforts have failed before the indirect negotiations have even begun."

Previous efforts at direct negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders have failed, however, because of Israel's refusal to meet a key Palestinian requirement: a freeze on all building in West Bank settlements, built on land earmarked for a future Palestinian state.