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Row between U.S., Israel highlights quandary over settlements

RAMALLAH, West Bank - An open diplomatic row during the visit of Vice President Joe Biden has shined a spotlight on the U.S. failure to rein in Israeli settlement ambitions and deepened Palestinian suspicions that the United States is too weak to broker a deal.

Biden's handshakes and embraces gave way to one of the strongest rebukes of Israel by a senior U.S. official in years after Israel's announcement during his visit that it plans to build 1,600 homes in disputed east Jerusalem. Israel apologized for the poor timing but is sticking to its plan to build the homes, enlarging one of the settlements that have impeded negotiations with Palestinians.

Wednesday the vice president assured Palestinians the United States is squarely behind their bid for statehood and urged the sides to refrain from actions "that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks."

"It's incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations, and not to complicate them," Biden said, standing alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel's announcement was widely seen as a slap in the face to its all-important U.S. ally. It stirred significant anger among U.S. officials and widespread skepticism about whether the Obama administration would have the courage or the backing to take Israel to task as the United States relaunches long-stalled peace negotiations. The future of those talks was called into question late yesterday when the Arab League recommended withdrawing support for them.

"This is a global message of American weakness and Israeli arrogance," said Palestinian lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi.

Biden's visit had been largely aimed at repairing U.S.-Israeli ties strained over the Jewish settlements. Palestinians and the United States consider settlements built on lands claimed by the Palestinians to be obstacles to peace. Biden condemned the Israeli announcement and pointedly arrived 90 minutes late to a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel's oblique response, that Netanyahu was blindsided by the announcement, that no one meant to offend Biden, that in future the prime minister would make sure sensitive announcements are routed through him, did not appear likely to put the matter to rest.

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