US Vice-President Joe Biden is meeting Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, in Ramallah on Wednesday in a visit aimed at reviving lapsed Israeli-Palestinian talks. The initiative comes a day after Biden condemned Israel's announcement of 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem.
The Israeli interior ministry's announcement of the new housing units drew sharp criticism from Biden and came only hours after he had personally met with and congratulated President Benjamin Netanyahu for 'taking risks for peace.' Biden had stressed the close relationship that binds Israel and the US, stressing Washington's commitment to Israel's security in an attempt to allay fears surrounding Iran's nuclear programme.
After learning of the housing announcement later on Tuesday however, Biden condemned the ill-timed move to expand the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo, adding that it undermined the trust needed to restart negotiations in the region. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is expected to visit Israel and the occupied territories later this month, echoed Biden's sentiments and reiterated that settlements are illegal under international law.
The Palestinian Authority welcomed Biden's strongly worded rebuke and said that Israeli actions undermined confidence in the prospects of a lasting political settlement. Mahmoud Abbas has refused to enter into direct negotiations with Israel until it puts a stop to settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem. On Wednesday, Israel apologised for the timing of the announcement but not for its substance, insisting that the government's ten month moratorium announced in November last year on the construction of housing units in the West Bank does not apply to Jerusalem. Leaders from Arab states are scheduled to meet in Cairo on Wednesday to discuss a response to the Israeli decision to build homes in the Ramat Shlomo neighbourhood.
The openSecurity verdict: The timing of Israel’s announcement to continue with settlement expansion in east Jerusalem is highly damaging and embarrassing for the Obama administration. Israeli officials maintain that discussions surrounding the authorisation of new housing units in the settlement of Ramat Shlomo have been underway for three years. The Israeli interior minister, Eli Yishai, insists that the timing of the announcement was not politically motivated and that he would have postponed the relevant district committee's authorisation to avoid ‘provoking anyone.’ But according to the BBC’s middle east editor, Jeremy Bowen, Biden's rebuke suggests that the US government has not accepted Israel’s defence of the announcement as part of a normal bureaucratic process that bears no connection with Biden’s visit.
Palestinians meanwhile will see the expansion of Ramat Shlomo as further evidence of Israel’s refusal to put an end to the relentless growth of illegal settlements. The recent announcement by Israel will only add to the cycle of mistrust and exacerbate frustrations among members of the PLO, who will have to compromise their demands for a complete freeze in construction if they wish to sit down at the negotiating table. On Monday for instance, Israel announced the construction of 112 new homes in the ultra-orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit. Israel insists that these housing units were approved before the one year moratorium on new builds was announced in November last year.
The rapid expansion of settlements continues to infuriate Palestinians, who see it as an attempt to squeeze them out of their homeland and undermine the existence of the Palestinian state. Repeated disturbances at the al-Aqsa mosque threaten to spark a wider uprising if fruitless negotiations discredit the PLO. Biden's visit to the Ramallah on Wednesday could not come at a better time for the Palestinians who will no doubt stress that the Netanyahu government is not serious when it says it wants peace. In the game of one-upmanship, in which both the Israelis and Palestinians are keen to disprove and undermine the others intentions about wanting peace, the decision to expand the settlement of Ramat Shlomo has played into the hands of Palestinians eager to win over a comparably sympathetic US administration.
Israel has been repeatedly criticised for only engaging in token measures that give the appearance of harsh restrictions but turn a blind eye to illegal settler activity and construction. So far, the Israeli government has approved thousands of housing units and public buildings beyond the green line that divides east and west Jerusalem. Some point to similarities between settler development and expansion in Jerusalem and Hebron, a city where combative settlers operate with near-impunity.
Acknowledging the 'Hebronisation' underway in Jerusalem, last month Chatham House published a report in which it stated that the 'cost of failure in Jerusalem is very high' and that 'current Israeli policies of segregation and exclusivity are leading to the 'warehousing' of Palestinian residents of the city and the abandonment of neighbourhoods.' It pointed to the insecurity and mistrust fostered as a result of Israel favouring divisive groups and the inability of Palestinians to obtain building permits from Israeli authorities. What happens in Jerusalem is key to the peace process in the middle east sincea successfully negotiated agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will be contingent on the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and Israeli access to Jewish holy sites. This latest row has created unwelcome difficulties for the Obama administration, for whom a general Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement would mark a significant achievement.
Tibet marks anniversary of 1959 uprising
China has tightened security in Tibet ahead of Wednesday's anniversary marking a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 and bloody riots in 2008. The Times reports that hundreds of Tibetans have been held in a pre-emptive crackdown by the authorities. Armed paramilitaries are reportedly patrolling the streets in a bid to avoid a repeat of the anti-Chinese riots that broke out two years ago. A moratorium is in place on the issue of travel permits required by all non-Chinese wanting to visit the area.
In a speech marking the anniversary, the Dalai Lama accused China of trying to 'annihilate Buddhism', adding that 'whether the Chinese government acknowledges it or not, there is a serious problem in Tibet.' In addition, the Dalai Lama expressed his solidarity with the Uighurs, an ethnic minority in China's troubled Xinjiang province. He referred to the Xinjiang province as 'East Turkestan', a name given to it by pro-independence allies, no doubt further antagonising Beijing. China has accused Dalai Lama of fomenting separatist sentiment and unrest in the Tibetan region.
Ahmadinejad in Afghanistan for talks
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived for talks with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, on Wednesday as US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates departed following a three-day visit to the country. Early on Wednesday, Gates accused Iran of playing a 'double game' in Afghanistan whereby it professes support for Karzai's government but tries to undermine the US-led military involvement. Speaking to reporters shortly before his departure, Gates said that Washington wanted Kabul to have 'good relations with all its neighbours' but that these neighbours needed to 'play an up front game' when dealing with Karzai's government.
At a joint press conference later on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad accused the US of playing a ‘double game’, adding that foreign military presence was not a recipe for peace in Afghanistan. He voiced criticism of the US military build-up in the country, saying ‘your country is located on the other side of the world, so what are you doing here?’ Later on Wednesday, Hamid Karzai is expected to visit Pakistan to meet the leadership of another crucial stakeholder in the region.
Governor of Plateau State blames Nigerian army for killings
Plateau State Governor Jonah John Jang has blamed the Nigerian army for last Sunday's killings near the city of Jos which left nearly 500 people dead. Jang claims that the military failed to take action on the intelligence he provided about suspicious people with weapons hours before the violence began. The army's response to the violence has also been criticised after it was revealed that they took two hours to react after receiving a distress call. The army has so far not responded to the criticisms. Yesterday Plateu’s state government announced the arrest of 100 suspects in connection with Sunday’s attacks.
Elsewhere, hundreds of Nigerians protested in Abuja on Wednesday to demand the appearance of Umar Yar'Adua, the country's ailing leader. Yar'Adua returned from Saudi Arabia two weeks ago after undergoing three months of treatment in Jeddah for a heart condition. The 58-year-old leader however has not been seen in public since, adding to fresh concerns and doubt over his capacity to lead his troubled nation.
Aung San Suu Kyi barred from polls
A new election law announced by the Burmese government has barred Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's detained opposition leader, from standing in elections expected later this year. Under the terms of the Political Parties Registration Law, announced on Wednesday, anyone convicted of a crime cannot join a political party and therefore contest elections. The move will include Suu Kyi who has spent 15 years in detention and is now serving 18 months in house detention for breaching security laws.
The new law will mean that up to 2,000 political prisoners, many of whom are members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), will be excluded and barred from standing in elections. Reuter’s reports that most opposition parties refuse to recognise the new constitution, claiming it is part of a broader effort to cement the military's grip on power. Whilst an election is expected later this year, there has been no announcement of the official date. The NLD has not said that it will run in the elections.
Aid workers killed in Pakistan
Unidentified gunmen attacked the offices of the American Christian charity World Vision in Pakistan on Wednesday, killing six people and wounding several others. The attack took place in the town of Ogi, a district situated in the North West Frontier Province which has been a recipient of long-term relief following the October 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which left more than 70,000 people dead. World Vision has announced that it is suspending all its operations in Pakistan, adding that those who targeted humanitarian workers were killing 'people seeking to improve the lives of victims of poverty and injustice.' The Taliban, who have in the past issued statements saying such organisations are working against Islam, are widely suspected of being behind the attack.