The New York Times
March 10, 2010 - 1:00am

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was unpleasantly surprised in Israel on Tuesday when the country’s Interior Ministry declared that it would expand housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. Mr. Biden, who earlier that day had expressed American support on Israel’s security needs, condemned the announcement, which had been made without the knowledge of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What did the incident reflect about the state of the Obama administration’s relations with Israel and the future of talks with the Palestinians?

Aaron David Miller -

When you’re dancing with a bear, the old adage goes, the only problem is that you can’t let go.

Nowhere was that image more colorfully captured than in this week’s brouhaha over settlements played out during Vice President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem.

If you’re hoping for an Israeli-American war, I wouldn’t bet on it: shared values, a strong pro-Israeli community and America’s need to cooperate with Israel to advance and protect its own interests preclude it. And it’s likely that the Obama administration, having spent the better part of its first year trying to decide whether to punish, or pander to, the Israelis, is warming to that reality.

You couldn’t have scripted a worse outcome for American credibility than the one that played out this week during the Biden visit.

Sent to coordinate with Israel, Joe Biden (a longtime friend of Israel) was embarrassed by an Israeli Ministry of Interior announcement on the building of an additional 1,600 units in East Jerusalem, almost at the very time that hard-won proximity talks between the Israelis and Palestinians brokered by Washington were notionally scheduled. Indeed, one of the reasons the Palestinians didn’t want to come back to the negotiating table was fear of additional Israeli actions of this sort.

But beyond some very tough words by America, don’t expect much more.

The fact is the U.S. is in an investment trap when it comes to Israel. A close ally, with solid support at home (a February Gallup poll ranked Israel fifth from the top of 20 countries that Americans were asked to rank on the basis of favorability, while the Palestinian Authority ranked 16th), America needs the Israelis’ cooperation to achieve its goals on both the peace process and Iran.

Admittedly, both goals look very doubtful at the moment. Still, the last thing an overextended president (at home and abroad) needs is a big fight with Israel and its supporters, particularly on the settlement issue in Jerusalem.

The administration has yet to figure out how to maintain America’s special relationship with Israel (which can serve U.S. interests), yet prevent that bond from becoming so exclusive that Israel acts without consequence or cost, and America has little independence of its own on peace process policies. Until it does, most likely through a serious strategy on Israeli-Palestinian peace that has both incentives and disincentives for both sides, the dancing is going to continue.

Daniel Gordis -

Admonishing Israel that planning additional Jewish housing in East Jerusalem “undermines the trust we need,” Vice President Biden accidentally pointed to a problem his own president has helped create — a complete absence of trust.

Israelis do not trust Barack Obama. Insisting that Israelis freeze settlement expansion without making some equally explicit demand of the Palestinians — and using the same term “settlement” for both massive neighborhoods that are home to tens of thousands and for illegal outposts that most Israelis want dismantled — Obama has convinced Israelis that he has no command of the issues, and that he is predisposed to pressuring Israel much more than the Palestinians. It is Obama who is unwittingly fueling the pro-settlement movement.

Nor do Israelis trust the Palestinians. For years, Mahmoud Abbas negotiated with Israeli governments without insisting on a settlement freeze.

But Obama has afforded him an excuse to avoid the critical concessions Palestinians will have to make for peace, and Abbas is exploiting it cynically and fully. Few Israelis believe the Palestinians have the stomach for a genuine deal.

And Israelis do not trust Netanyahu’s government, a fragile coalition born of desperation when Tzipi Livni defeated Netanyahu in the popular vote. Netanyahu appears unable to either manage his coalition or articulate a strategy. Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon humiliated the Turkish ambassador when Netanyahu needed quiet on that front, and now the interior minister, Eli Yishai, has cast a dark cloud over Biden’s visit. Netanyahu can make no assurances to the U.S., or tell Israelis what he genuinely plans, because he is too busy trying to survive.

So Israel is left utterly rudderless. The right, determined not to be America’s patsy, demands expansion of settlements, with no plan for settling the conflict. And the left, appalled by a government devoid of strategy, protests the East Jerusalem housing plans, as if this is the reason for Palestinian recalcitrance.

Tragically, those who hope for a deal could not have been dealt a worse hand than the Obama-Netanyahu combination. Until these players are replaced, real progress will remain all but impossible.

Amjad Atallah -

Israel’s announcement of 1,600 new settlement units in Arab East Jerusalem, coming during Vice President Biden’s visit, and the previous day’s announcement of 112 new settlements elsewhere in the Occupied West Bank, should not be seen as one-off slaps at the United States.

In many ways they are a culmination of this Israeli government’s efforts to “teach” President Obama what he can and can’t do to defend American interests in the Middle East.

Vice President Biden came with two important messages for the Israelis: the first was to reiterate what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the national security adviser, James Jones, have reportedly already told them: that there is no military solution to the international community’s issues with Iran; his second and more immediate message was that President Obama remains committed to ending the occupation of Arab territory and thereby securing American and Israeli interests in the region.

The Israelis have been giving the United States a counter-message since Likud came to power in Israel last year.

That message has been that Israel demands that the United States take a military confrontational approach with Iran. Its second message, no less vociferous, has been that Israel has no intention of ending its control over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Settlements are the most important, but not only, element in that system of control.

The United States has been sending its messages with carrots and great diplomatic restraint. The current Israeli government, in stark contrast, has been responding like a petulant child, outraged that it hasn’t been able to get U.S. acquiescence to its own short-term political strategy.

There is a great deal at stake in this public and private dispute between Israel and the United States. President Obama should consider responding in a similar manner, by creating his own facts on the ground, and ending all forms of U.S. cover and support of the settlement enterprise and other policies that sustain the occupation.

David Makovsky -

Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai have expressed regret that the announcement of 1,600 units in East Jerusalem occurred during Vice President Biden’s visit.

While critics insist the move by Netanyahu was deliberately aimed at angering the Obama administration and doubt that Netanyahu was blindsided as he insists, such an accusation seems unlikely to be true.

It was widely known that the Biden mission was a fence-mending visit designed to improve U.S.-Israel relations after a period of friction in bilateral ties during the past year. Indeed, until the incident, Biden’s comments have been pitch perfect for Israeli ears. His trip was intended to assure Israeli concerns about U.S. commitment to their security.

Moreover, it is also known that his trip was designed to deal with another area of crucial concern for Israel: the depth of the Obama administration’s commitment to ensuring that Iran does not gain nuclear weapons capability. Along with the restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians, U.S.-Israel relations and Iran are the key themes of Biden’s visit.

It would be suicidal for Netanyahu to seek to sabotage such a friendly visit given Israel’s supreme interest in both of these issues. A deliberate move to undermine the Biden visit could fatally undermine Netanyahu’s efforts to improve ties with the Obama administration. Even Netanyahu’s biggest critics do not think he would act in a manner so counterproductive to Israel’s own concept of the national interest.

But two lessons must be learned from this incident. It is the second time that the prime minister of Israel claims to have been blindsided by his own bureaucracy. The first time was last November, a week after Netanyahu had what he has called his best meeting with Obama, in which no aides were present. At the time, it was announced that 900 housing units would be built in the Gilo neighborhood of East (actually southern) Jerusalem.

Given the political sensitivities of building in Jerusalem, decision-making on this issue in the future must be concentrated in the prime minister’s office. It is unthinkable that bureaucrats under the prime minister can make decisions that have a great impact on Israel, while the leader remains a bystander. The prime minister is accountable to the Israeli people, and therefore he must decide.

A second lesson is about Jerusalem itself. Even if Senator George Mitchell’s efforts make serious strides on demarcating Israeli and Palestinian borders in the West Bank, it is unlikely that the status of Jerusalem will be agreed on tomorrow. As it stands, Mitchell has not been successful in winning acceptance of a housing freeze in East Jerusalem.

Therefore, something more practical is required: namely that Israelis and Palestinians reach a baseline agreement that neither party will expand into the neighborhoods of the other in East Jerusalem. This is more attainable than a freeze, and could avoid flashpoint incidents in the future.

Nathan Brown -

The Obama administration is soldiering on in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace by tweaking the approaches of its predecessors. It now seeks to further Palestinian institution building and economic development in the West Bank, isolate Hamas and Gaza, and get some kind of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations started that will move things in the direction of a two state solution.

Each of these ingredients may have made sense at a different time. The best time to have focused on Palestinian institution building, for instance, would have been in the late 1990s when there was a serious effort — with the support of the parliament — to build strong, professional and democratic institutions.

But since Hamas seized control of Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas seized control of the West Bank, the institutions being built have little connection with the societies they govern.

Some economic recovery will be possible — and has been taking place in the West Ban — but sustained economic development will not occur without a resolution of the underlying political problems. The policy of isolating Hamas and Gaza has not only had devastating humanitarian consequences; it has actually led to the Islamist movement’s entrenching itself even more deeply in control of the economy and political system of Gaza.

And the idea of negotiations at the present time — when the Palestinian leadership lacks the ability and the Israeli leadership lacks the willingness to build the basic elements of a two state solution — will lead to talks only for the sake of talks.

If a two state solution were to occur then a reversal of Israeli settlements would be a necessary condition. But it is nothing close to a sufficient condition. The current dust-up over building in Jerusalem obscures how much the other conditions are lacking.

Daoud Kuttab -

Sometimes when a difficult relationship is in its formative phase something occurs that establishes its parameters. This is exactly what happened between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu.

The two had climbed their respective opposing trees on the issue of the prerequisite of a total settlement freeze as a prelude to beginning of peace talks. When they met in New York last Sept. 20, President Obama blinked first, leaving the embarrassed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, hanging on the tree.

In his public statement the U.S. president scaled down from his (and Secretary Clinton’s) previous calls for a settlement “freeze” to accepting Israel’s offer of a settlement “restraint.” Once it became clear that the Americans will not stand up to Israel on settlements, everyone knew their place in this relationship.

Despite the White House’s latest protestation of the embarrassment meted to Vice President Biden, the Obama administration has only itself to blame.

Israel’s announcement March 9 to build another 1,600 units of housing in East Jerusalem, to be added to 112 units approved for a settlement outside Bethlehem a few days earlier, as well other announcements made since that September standoff, all are a result of the American president’s weak knees. The sliding slope that began that day in September has continued and will ultimately derail America’s goals of bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Palestinian leadership’s refusal to have direct talks until there is a true freeze on settlements in all areas occupied in 1967 shows that the authors of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 were right by stating in the preamble of that resolution the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

All attempts to appease and reward Israel for its acquisition by war has resulted in pushing peace away. If President George W. Bush truly believed, and President Obama truly believes — as they both publicly stated — that an independent, viable and contiguous Palestinian state is in the “national interest” of the United States, Washington must resolve once and for all that any Jewish settlement built on Palestinian territory forcefully taken in 1967 will not be tolerated.

Once America regains its resolve in this area, the peace train can proceed to its destination.

Michele Dunne -

While there is absolutely nothing surprising about an Israeli decision to build 1,600 units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, the ill-timed announcement during Biden’s visit exposes painfully the poor state of relations between the Obama administration and Israel. Although Prime Minister Netanyahu most likely was blindsided by the announcement, others in his coalition apparently thought it unproblematic to insult Biden and by association Obama.

And why should they? President Obama has shown Israelis neither consideration nor resolve. He failed to visit and use his much-vaunted powers of persuasion directly on Israelis last spring when he visited Egypt and Turkey; Obama also failed to show strength by imposing some consequence on Netanyahu when the Israeli leader refused to order a real freeze on settlements.

So now there is ill will and a lack of respect all around. The Palestinians probably hope this will redound to their benefit in the form of U.S. pressure on Israel, but it is more likely that Obama will see this episode as reason to disassociate himself from peace efforts even more than he has done in the past few months.

The Obama administration’s calls for a settlement freeze during 2009 differed from those of previous administrations because they were clear and unambiguous. The idea was to restore faith in the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Arab Israeli conflict by persuading Israel to make a gesture on this very important issue and Arab states to take steps toward normalizing relations.

The problem was that the Obama team was so overconfident that they failed to develop either a serious strategy to persuade the Israelis and Arabs or a Plan B in case of failure.

What this episode shows is not that it was wrong to focus on settlements, but that it was wrong to embark on a risky diplomatic venture without having the strategic thinking or fortitude to stick with it when the going got rough.

In this case, failed diplomacy did not leave the situation back where it was before Obama entered office, but did actual damage and set the diplomatic clock back nearly two decades, to an era when Israelis and Palestinians could not even sit at a table and talk directly.


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