By Barak Ravid, Akiva Eldar and Avi Issacharoff
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday praised Israel for agreeing to renew the Middle East process and pledged that the United States would always “stand by those who take risks for peace.”
“Historic peace will require both sides to make historically bold commitments,” said Biden during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden welcomed Netanyahu’s move this week to begin U.S.-mediated indirect talks with the Palestinians and said he hoped it would lead to direct negotiations that would produce a historic peace treaty.
Netanyahu, in pledging to work with Washington to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, repeated a key Israeli condition that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state – a demand they have rejected.
He said any peace accord must guarantee Israel’s security “for generations to come”.
The vice president arrived on Monday as the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Israel since Barack Obama became president.
“There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security,” Biden said as the two leaders made statements to the media following talks in Jerusalem.
This was a message Biden had been widely expected to bring in person from Obama. Israeli political sources have said he is also making clear Washington does not want Israel to risk any military action against Iran while the United States is seeking a wide coalition for sanctions on Tehran.
Netanyahu said Israel’s security priorities were ensuring Iran did not build nuclear weapons and establishing peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.
“I very much appreciate the efforts of President Obama and the American government to lead the international community to place tough sanctions on Iran,” he said.
“The stronger those sanctions are, the more likely it will be that the Iranian regime will have to chose between advancing its nuclear program and advancing the future of its own permanence,” added Netanyahu.
For his part, Biden declared that the United States was intent on stopping Iran from being able to produce nuclear weapons.
“We’re determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we’re working with many countries around the world to convince Tehran to meet its international obligations and cease and desist,” he said.
Earlier Tuesday, Biden assured President Shimon Peres of Washington’s commitment to its security and said the agreed resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks provided a “moment of real opportunity” for peace.
His visit coincided with Palestinian and Israeli agreement, in meetings with Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell this week, to resume peace talks suspended since December 2008, amid strong skepticism about their chances for success.
“I think we are at a moment of real opportunity,” Biden said at a meeting with President Shimon Peres, the first diplomatic session to be held over the course of his five-day visit. Biden plans to see Palestinian leaders in the West Bank on Wednesday.
“The interests of both the Palestinians and the Israeli people, if everyone would just step back and take a deep breath, are actually very much more in line than they are in opposition,” he said.
U.S.: Annapolis understandings non-binding
Mitchell told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during talks this week that the understandings reached following the 2007 Annapolis Conference are non-binding in the current round of negotiations, Haaretz has learned.
The Obama administration announced Monday night that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to resume the peace process by means of indirect negotiations, facilitated by Mitchell.
Mitchell met with Netanyahu for two rounds of talks on Sunday and Monday, and then went to Ramallah to meet Abbas.
“I’m pleased that the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have accepted indirect talks,” Mitchell said in a statement last night. “We’ve begun to discuss the structure and scope of these talks, and I will return to the region next week to continue our discussions. As we’ve said many times, we hope that these will lead to direct negotiations as soon as possible.”
The American envoy also called on “the parties, and all concerned, to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.”
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Bureau expressed satisfaction that negotiations are restarting after more than a year, but refused to comment on the details of the process.
The United States has told the Palestinians that if the sides do not meet expectations, it will “act accordingly.”
A senior Palestinian source told Haaretz on Monday that the Palestinians and the Arab League have received American assurances that “we will be actively involved in managing the indirect talks, and also proposing ideas and bridging ideas of our own.”
The U.S. has allotted the process four months to reach results. Regarding whether the U.S. would then announce whether the sides’ positions reflect the international consensus on the conflict, the Americans told the Palestinians that the U.S. “expects both sides to behave seriously, with honesty and in good will because, if one of the sides, in our judgment, does not fulfill our expectations, we will make our concerns clear and we will act accordingly in order to overcome every obstacle.”
The announcement that negotiations are resuming came despite disagreements between the three sides over the structure of the talks.
The Palestinians issued a strongly worded protest Monday after Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave permission for the construction of 112 housing units in the settlement of Beitar Ilit, despite the construction freeze in the West Bank settlements.
In a Jerusalem meeting with quartet envoys on Friday, Mitchell’s deputy David Hale said the negotiations after Annapolis and the understandings reached by Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qureia, as well as Ehud Olmert and Abbas, would not be binding.
The talks will be based on agreements signed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, including the road map.
Olmert had offered Abbas an Israeli withdrawal from 94 percent of the West Bank, and Israeli territory in exchange for the remaining 6 percent. In addition, Israel would symbolically accept 5,000 Palestinian refugees and enable international governance for the holy sites in the Old City.
Abbas never responded to Olmert’s offer, but the Palestinians insisted that the negotiations resume from where they stopped during Olmert’s term as prime minister.
The U.S. apparently accepted Israel’s position on the matter, which was to ignore everything that was not signed as part of an agreement.
The talks will also be based on the Obama administration’s two statements from the past year: President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations, which described the goal of a secure, Jewish state in Israel alongside a viable, independent Palestine and an end to the 1967 occupation; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement regarding a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with territory exchanges, combined with Israel’s desire for a secure Jewish state that includes “recent developments,” meaning the settlement blocs.
See Related: ISRAEL-MIDEAST