Laura Rozen
March 12, 2010 - 1:00am

Vice President Joe Biden departed from Israel Thursday leaving behind a raging controversy over the consequences of what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists was the unintentional embarrassment of the highest-ranking member of the Obama administration to visit his country.

The Israeli press has been extremely critical of the Netanyahu government for causing consternation to the American vice president by announcing, less than 24 hours after his arrival, a plan to approve construction of 1,600 new Jewish homes in contested East Jerusalem. But observers say it’s too soon to tell if the episode will result in Netanyahu’s being any more willing to reduce provocative actions in East Jerusalem that are widely condemned by the U.S. and the rest of the world but that are supported by much of the Israeli public and Netanyahu’s political constituency.

In what was designed as the public capstone of his visit, a speech at Tel Aviv University Thursday, Biden reiterated his criticism of the government’s action, which, he said, “undermined the trust required for productive negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“Now, some legitimately may have been surprised that such a strong supporter of Israel ... how I can speak out so strongly given the ties that I share, as well as my country shares, with Israel,” Biden continued. “But quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth.”

Just before Biden’s arrival, U.S. special envoy George Mitchell had brokered the beginning of “proximity” talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which was taken as a sign that relations between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration might be improving.

Administration officials said Thursday that while Mitchell is still slated to return to the region next week to try to salvage the proximity talks, there is a “huge debate” inside the administration “about what to do.”

Part of Biden’s purpose in the trip was to reassure Israelis about the U.S.’s traditional commitment, and much of his speech in Tel Aviv was devoted to that theme.

“I am here to remind you, though I hope you will never forget, that America stands with you, shoulder to shoulder, in facing these threats,” Biden said. “President Obama and I represent an unbroken chain of American leaders who have understood this critical, strategic relationship.”

“The way Biden spoke was pitch perfect to Israeli ears,” said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s David Makovsky, contrasting Biden’s ability to connect with the cooler image of President Barack Obama. “With Israelis, you have to connect on a gut level. That is where Biden is strong. He cuts through diplomatese; it comes across as very authentic.”

But the Israeli press reported that in his private sessions, Biden was nothing if not blunt.

“People who heard what Biden said [to Israeli officials behind closed doors] were stunned,” the centrist Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported. “‘This is starting to get dangerous for us,’ Biden castigated his interlocutors. ‘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.’”

“In language that could only have been finalized shortly before he delivered the speech, Biden reiterated that it was Israel’s perceived breach of trust that had been so galling — at a time, with the fragile proximity talks just getting under way, when trust was at a premium,” Jerusalem Post editorialist David Horovitz wrote Thursday.

In Washington, some experts said the settlements episode could give Washington leverage to make Netanyahu himself sign off on any housing decisions regarding contested East Jerusalem — and to push both him and the Palestinians to avoid any further such provocations in Jerusalem while proximity talks are under way.

“Until now, Netanyahu has been able to be ambiguous about his commitment to peace, saying abstractly that he is in favor of a two-state agreement but carrying out many policies that absolutely contradict this,” said Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force for Palestine.

But now, Ibish said, “it is going to make keeping those balls in the air much more difficult for Netanyahu, because it’s become clear how much tension there is between his stated positions and his government’s policies.”


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