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Biden urges Israel to work for a Palestinian state

Speaking to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, Vice President Joe Biden also calls for a halt to the expansion of Jewish settlements.

May 06, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden called on Israeli officials Tuesday to work harder for creation of a Palestinian state and to halt growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Biden, speaking at a conference sponsored by an influential pro-Israel lobby, said the Obama administration was committed to a new direction in Middle East peace efforts because "the status quo of the last decade has not served the interests of the United States, or Israel, very well."

"Israel has to work toward a two-state solution," he said. "You're not going to like my saying this, but [don't] build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow Palestinians freedom of movement."

The speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was the latest indication that, despite its commitment to Israel, the administration was prepared to disagree with the recently installed government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli leader, who is scheduled to visit the White House on May 18, has stopped short of advocating a separate Palestinian state, though he told a convention audience Monday in an address broadcast by satellite that he was committed to working for peace.

Israelis and their ardent supporters in the United States have been eyeing the Obama administration to determine whether U.S. officials intend to push Israel toward peace at a time when many Israelis are skeptical that they can go down that path without risking their security.

The AIPAC forum was a significant setting for Biden's message, and his is an influential administration voice. He has been an unswerving supporter of AIPAC and emphasized that the security of Israel was "nonnegotiable" for the administration.

But officials on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides have speculated that the United States and Israel may collide over the issue of the settlements.

U.S. officials have said they believe that Israel could reduce resentment in the Middle East with an energetic effort to halt settlement growth.

Biden said that from its first day, the administration was committed to making a "strong, sustained effort on behalf of peace," and he emphasized that "all of us have obligations to meet."

The vice president said the Palestinians should take steps toward peace, and that it was time for Arab states to make "meaningful gestures" to demonstrate that they would end Israel's isolation in the region.

He said the administration was committed to exploring the possibility of peace between Israel and Syria, because it could "reshape the region."

Biden also addressed the administration's diplomatic overture to Iran, saying that if Tehran rejected the offer of negotiations, it would face a future of "international pressure, isolation -- and one [in] which nothing is taken off the table."

At a time when Israel has been pressing the Obama administration to set a deadline for its peace offering to Iran, Biden added that the White House knows "we don't have unlimited time to make this assessment."

Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. Mideast negotiator, said Biden's comments, while significant, were generally in line with those of other senior administration officials.

He said the test of the administration's approach would come after U.S. officials have presented their proposals, and Israeli and Arab negotiators respond with varying measures of resistance.

"Then you've gotten to the push-back phase," Miller said. "Then you'll see what their commitment is."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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