The propensity of some Israeli political leaders to speak publicly or take action before thinking clearly of the consequences hit a new low this week during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit.
If Israelis were looking for reassurance that the United States is genuinely the Jewish state’s number one ally, the vice president couldn’t have been clearer. “The bond between the U.S. and Israel has been and will remain unshakable,” declared Biden. “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel.” But, alas, there is a significant gap, on settlements, and it was an Israeli Cabinet Minister who decided to remind all with international media focused on every step of Biden’s visit.
Biden is the highest ranking U.S. Administration official to visit since President Obama moved into the White House. His arrival coincided with the announcement by Senator George Mitchell, Obama’s special Middle East envoy, that Israel and the Palestinian Authority had agreed to resume peace negotiations, albeit indirect through so-called proximity talks. An intermediary is desperately needed, and the U.S., thankfully, continues to be seen as the key power to fill that role. Surely, no one would expect the vice president himself to come to Jerusalem and Ramallah to negotiate, but he was poised to endorse this apparent progress, and prod both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to move forward with Mitchell’s team.
For months, it seemed that the Palestinians were the ones stalling the peace process. Abbas has traveled to Latin America and Europe to muster support for a Palestinian state, but not the short distance to Jerusalem to sit down with Netanyahu, who laid out a vision for peace, and a two-state solution, in a speech last June at Bar Ilan University.
In November, to woo Abbas back to direct negotiations — and to assuage Obama — Netanyahu took the bold step of announcing a ten-month freeze on new construction. But he stressed that Jerusalem is exempt, a posture that understandably infuriated the Palestinians, as well as the U.S., and set the stage for the unfortunate turn of events during Biden’s visit.
Within hours after delivering praise in Jerusalem, Biden was publicly criticizing Israel. “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem,” said the vice president, referring to Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s announcement that Israel would build 1,600 additional housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a Jerusalem neighborhood over the pre-1967 Green Line. “The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel,” Biden said.
Thanks to Minister Yishai, the tenor of Biden’s visit shifted quickly. Media focused on tensions between the U.S. and Israel, and the new construction plans became the centerpiece of Biden’s meeting with Abbas, who threatened to cancel the proximity talks even before they begin.
For now, the U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks appear to be back on track, though when they will begin is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is the reality that there is space between Jerusalem and Washington on the peace process, especially on the issue of settlements. It will come to the fore again. Indeed, just before Biden arrived, Israel announced approval for 112 new housing units in Beitar Illit, the fastest-growing settlement in the West Bank. This is another exemption from the ten-month freeze.
While Yishai later apologized for the “timing” of his announcement, no one in the White House can know if and when an Israeli official will again step forward to carry out the Netanyahu government’s policy to build new homes for Jews throughout Jerusalem. It is an ideological priority for Israel, but that comes as an unnecessary cost of an open confrontation with the United States. At some point soon, Israel’s leaders will need to decide which is more important.
“The United States will continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions and influence these talks,” Biden stated publicly several times during his visit to Israel and the West Bank.
Let’s hope all in the Israeli Cabinet consider this core message that the U.S. wants to be helpful and means business in getting results through negotiations. Israel’s political leaders should take a cue from their own military, where discipline is essential for the country’s security, and dysfunction can be perilously costly.