Biden in Israel: Tiff or Tipping Point?

"Condemn" is not a word that rolls trippingly off the tongue of a U.S. politician addressing anything having to do with actions, however objectionable, by Israel.

So it was no surprise that close observers of U.S. Middle East policy sat up a lot straighter in their seats when Vice President Joseph Biden used the word not once, but twice, during his visit to Israel this week in reference to the Israeli Interior Ministry’s announcement that it intends to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," said Biden, considered among Israel’s staunchest supporters during his several decades in Congress.

"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of [U.S.-mediated] proximity talks [between Israel and the Palestine Authority], is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now," noted Biden.

In a remarkable show of displeasure, he subsequently kept Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu waiting 90 minutes before joining him for an official dinner and, according to Israeli press accounts, gave top Israeli officials a private tongue-lashing over how such actions by the Jewish state incite Islamic extremism across the Arab world and beyond.

Forty-eight hours later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, clearly rejecting Netanyahu’s apology over the unfortunate coincidence of the ministry’s announcement with Biden’s arrival, joined the fray.

According to her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, Clinton called the right-wing leader Friday morning "to reiterate the United States’ strong objections to Tuesday’s announcement, not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance."

"The secretary said she could not understand how this had happened, particularly in light of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel’s security," Crowley told reporters. "And she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process."

The rebukes, which some Mideast veterans described as the harshest directed toward Israel by senior U.S. officials since the presidency of George H.W. Bush almost 20 years ago, have revived questions over whether the administration of President Barack Obama is prepared to get tough with the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, particularly over the issue of settlements.

Early in its tenure, the administration demanded a halt to all new Jewish settlement activity on Palestinian territory in order to get serious peace talks with the PA underway.

That demand, however, was rebuffed by Netanyahu, who, encouraged by the right-wing leadership of the powerful "Israel Lobby," countered with a partial 10-month settlement freeze that explicitly excluded East Jerusalem whose "annexation" by Israel in 1967 has been rejected by all other members of the United Nations, including the U.S.

The administration’s acquiescence in – indeed, praise for – Netanyahu’s "restraint" lost it a considerable amount of credibility, particularly in the Arab world, where hopes for a more evenhanded U.S. approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict had been running high, especially since Obama’s speech in Cairo last June.

This week’s contretemps with Biden and now Clinton, however, has moved the settlement issue – and particularly the fate of East Jerusalem, whose status as the capital of any future Palestinian state is widely considered a precondition for any viable two-state solution – front and center once again.

"It is now abundantly clear that with or without a formal declaration from Netanyahu, getting events in Jerusalem under control – which includes a de facto full-stop settlement freeze in Jerusalem – is no mere discretionary gesture but a political imperative," according to Lara Friedman and Daniel Seidemann of Americans for Peace Now (APN). "Failing that, this political process will be stillborn."

But it is not only the peace talks, which Obama’s special envoy, George Mitchell, had labored long and hard to convene, that this week’s incident has put into question. In the words of one veteran U.S. Mideast hand, Aaron David Miller, it also raised new questions over "the degree to which Israel is willing to take into account U.S. interests."

Indeed, while Biden’s mission was originally aimed at publicly reassuring Israelis of Washington’s "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment" to their security, as he put it immediately after his arrival, the private message, especially in light of the Interior Ministry’s announcement, was that Israel should reciprocate, according to an account published in Yedioth Ahronoth.

"’This is starting to get dangerous for us,’ Biden castigated his interlocutors," the newspaper reported. "’What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.’"

"The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and U.S. policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism," the paper continued.

Any assertion, particularly from a recognized "friend of Israel" like Biden, that Israeli actions against Palestinians have a negative impact on the U.S. position in the larger region – let alone the safety of U.S. troops – has long been anathema to Likudist neoconservatives and the right-wing leadership of the "Israel Lobby."

But, as Biden himself said in his departure speech in Tel Aviv Friday, "quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Washington’s harsh condemnation of Israel’s behavior comes just days before the lobby’s biggest event of the year – next weekend’s annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The meeting’s organizers and Netanyahu, who will address the conference, had hoped to focus on the necessity of confronting the "existential threat" posed by Iran. But they may now find themselves in a more defensive position regarding settlements, East Jerusalem, and Israel’s alleged failure to take account of the implications of its actions on U.S. interests.

Indeed, Israel’s actions had the virtue, according to former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, of clarifying the strength of the settlement movement in Israeli politics.

"The momentum they can now generate … is stronger than Israel’s demographic concerns, is stronger than fear of Israel acquiring an international pariah status, and as was proven this week, is stronger than the needs of the U.S.-Israel relationship," he wrote in The Guardian. "America’s vice-president has just seen this dynamic first hand and up close."

That clarity could spur Washington to take stronger action in concert with its Quartet partners, which met in New York Friday and joined the U.S. in condemning the latest settlement announcement.

"Perhaps America will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for recalcitrance," Levy wrote. "Thus far, that has not been the case." But, "in the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of home for pragmatic Zionism."

Miller is even more skeptical. While the latest provocation "managed to elicit Washington’s strongest words about Israel in years," he wrote at Friday, "… for this very busy president, the Arab-Israeli issue now has little to do with his stock at home."

Still, Clinton’s strong public backing for Biden and her own dig at Netanyahu Friday hint of a tougher public stance. Another hint could come next week when she keynotes the AIPAC conference.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.