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Biden seeks to soothe tensions before leaving Israel

JERUSALEM - Vice President Joe Biden attempted to soothe tensions with Israel yesterday in a speech extolling the countries' close relationship, signaling that the United States wants to move beyond an embarrassing diplomatic spat over settlements that tarnished his three-day visit.

But the warm words, coming after an Israeli move seen as a slap in the face to Biden, could exacerbate Palestinian perceptions that the United States is unwilling to take Israel to task.

Biden's visit, meant to help repair strained ties and boost a coming round of U.S.-mediated peace talks, was instead overshadowed by Israel's announcement Tuesday that it plans to build 1,600 new apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in disputed east Jerusalem.

The plan drew a sharp condemnation from Biden, and the Palestinians have threatened to pull out of the indirect peace talks before they even begin.

Wrapping up his visit with a speech at Tel Aviv University, Biden reiterated his condemnation of the settlement plan, urging Israelis and Palestinians to avoid acts that could "inflame" the situation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday he had apologized to the vice president for the poor timing and reprimanded his interior minister, whose office announced the construction plan. He said it would be several years before the new homes are built. Netanyahu gave no sign, however, that he would cancel the order or punish anyone for embarrassing Biden.

Biden left Israel yesterday for Jordan. - AP

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