Hundreds of people gathered Thursday morning at Tel Aviv University to listen to an address by US Vice President Joe Biden. This was the American VP's last public appearance in Israel before flying to Jordan and then back to Washington.
Biden opened the high-profile speech with warm words of praise for the Jewish state. He appeared to be trying to calm a diplomatic row that erupted during his visit over construction plans for disputed east Jerusalem.
The vice president told the audience that the US has "no better friend" than Israel. He also spoke about his long connection to Israel. But Biden also urged Israel to make a serious attempt to reach peace with the Palestinians. He told the audience that an agreement was "profoundly" in Israel's interests.
Biden said the sides must get down to the business of making peace. "To end this historic conflict, both sides must be historically bold," he said. "If each waits stubbornly ... this will go on for an eternity."
'Good faith negotiations," he said, could recognize Israeli security needs and the Palestinian goal for a viable state.
He called for no delay in resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, after Palestinians said Israel must cancel a settlement project before negotiations can begin.
"The most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go forward promptly and go forward in good faith," Biden said. "We can't delay because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our differences."
Biden also repeatedly voiced Washington's commitment to Israel's security, trying to allay any concerns the Jewish state might have, but also said an end to the conflict would restore to the Palestinians "the fundamental dignity and self-respect that their current predicament denies them."
In his speech, Biden gave no sign Washington would press Israel to cancel the project. Instead, he said he had been assured by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that construction at the site, a religious Jewish settlement, would not start for years.
Biden said Palestinians had misunderstood Israel's announcement of the settlement plan, thinking that building would begin immediately.
With no construction scheduled for now, he said, negotiators would have time to "resolve this and other outstanding issues".
Biden reiterated his condemnation of the building plan, urging both sides to avoid acts that could undermine the negotiations. "I, at the request of President Obama, condemned it immediately and unequivocally," he said.
He noted that Israel – instead of taking this chance – decided to approve the building in east Jerusalem, which undermines efforts to renew talks. His condemnation of the construction announcement received enthusiastic applause.
He added that he "appreciates" Netanyahu's response to the row. "Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truths, and I appreciate ... the response by the prime minister today," the American VP said.
'Opportunity must be seized'
In his speech, Biden outlined the contours of what the US believes should be a final settlement. He said a Palestinian state must be based on the pre-1967 borders, with some modifications and strong guarantees for Israel's security.
He acknowledged the formidable obstacles that remain: The Hamas presence in Gaza, the continued captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in Gaza, the strength of Hezbollah guerrillas to Israel's north in Lebanon, and ongoing Palestinian incitement against Israel. He said such challenges are strong reminders of Israel's security concerns.
But he also urged Israel to embrace the moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, with whom he met on Wednesday.
"Israeli leaders finally have willing partners who share the goal of peace," Biden said. "Their commitment to peace is an opportunity that must be seized."
Many in the region were expected to listen to the visit's "final note" in light of the new crisis between Israel and the Palestinians following the approval of the construction of 1,600 housing units in east Jerusalem.
As part of the plan the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in Jerusalem will be expanded southward and eastward, while upgrading the existing entry road and adding another access road from the west side.
Nir Hefetz, head of National Information Directorate at the Prime Minister's Office said in response, "The prime minister spoke with Vice President Biden and expressed his regret over the unsuccessful timing.
"Netanyahu updated Biden that the project in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood underwent a number of planning stages in the past few years and that the final planning go-ahead will apparently only be given in more than a year and that the actual building will likely start only in another few years."
The approval of the plan by Interior Minister Eli Yishai embarrassed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and caused a lot of anger among Arab countries, leading the Palestinians to decide not to launch the indirect peace talks with Israel.
Biden himself slammed the decision during his visit to Ramallah, saying it would critically damage the efforts to build trust with the Palestinians.
Reuters, the Associated Press, AFP and Roni Sofer contributed to this report