Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
March 15, 2010 - 12:00am

NEW YORK — I’m tempted to see Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel as a parable: Nice guy wanders into mess and truth is revealed.

We’ve had, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clarifying the fact that, “Israel and the U.S. have mutual interests, but we will act according to the vital interests of the state of Israel.”

Of course, the United States, too, has “vital interests.” They include reaching a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine for which the physical space erodes daily as Israeli settlements in the West Bank expand.

Peace is a vital American interest for many reasons, including its inalienable commitment to Israel’s long-term security, but the most pressing is that the conflict is a jihadist recruitment tool that feeds the wars in which young Americans die.

This is not rocket science. Yet over the past decade the United States has been facilitating the costly settlements enterprise by pouring $28.9 billion into Israel. America’s strategic goal of Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in security has been undermined by its own blank-check diplomacy.

Well, goodbye to all that — maybe. Something shifted when Biden (“You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist”) was thanked for his unstinting support of Israel with a snub: The announcement that another 1,600 apartments for Jews will be built in east Jerusalem, a pure provocation when restarting peace talks is the core U.S. aim.

President Barack Obama was furious. In a top-down administration like this one, you don’t get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lambasting Netanyahu for 43 minutes and David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, speaking of “an affront” and “an insult” and a “very, very destructive” step if America’s measured leader is not immeasurably incensed. That truth is also worth knowing.

Obama has reason to be angry.

Netanyahu, betraying the growing Israeli taste for the status quo, torn between rightist instincts and coalition partners on the one hand and his ego’s sensitivity to the peacemaker’s halo and history books on the other, has been toying with Obama.

A year ago, in March 2009, I wrote that, “Obama’s new policies of Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement” would involve “a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations.” I believed that Israel had misread or underestimated a core strategic shift of the Obama presidency: away from the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric of the war on terror toward a rapprochement with the Muslim world as the basis for isolating terrorists.

Well, here’s the cooling. You can’t have rapprochement with Muslims while condoning the steady Israeli appropriation of the physical space for Palestine. You can’t have that rapprochement if U.S. policy is susceptible to the whims of Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party in Netanyahu’s coalition that runs the Interior Ministry and announced the Biden-baiting measure.

The Israeli right, whether religious or secular, has no interest in a two-state peace. I had lunch the other day with Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, one of the largest West Bank settlements. He told me breezily that there “can be no Palestinian state,” and that “Israel and Jordan should divide the land.” I liked his frankness. It clarifies things.

It’s time for equal frankness from Netanyahu. Do “the vital interests of the state of Israel” include continued building in East Jerusalem and the steady takeover of the West Bank, or does his embrace of the airy phrase, “two states for two peoples,” have more than camouflage meaning?

Netanyahu’s apology is not enough. The United States is asking for “specific actions.” I’d say at a minimum that would include the annulment of the 1,600-apartments plan. Israel, always ready to mock Palestinian disarray, might also ensure that its leader knows what members of his own government are doing.

This is a watershed moment. Palestinian violence, Palestinian anti-Semitic incitement and jihadist infiltration of the Palestinian national movement all undermine peace efforts. They are unacceptable; Biden was right to “ironclad” the U.S. commitment to Israeli security. But it’s past time that Palestinian failings cease to serve as an excuse for Israel’s remorseless, cynical scattering of the Palestinian people into enclaves that make a farce of statehood. That is “an affront” to America.

In this sense, Biden’s foray has been salutary. It brought U.S. “vital interests” to the surface. It challenged Israel’s ostrich-like burrowing into polices that, over time, will make one divided, undemocratic state more likely than “two states for two peoples.” It asked again the question posed recently by David Shulman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Are Israelis, cocooned, still able “to see, to imagine, and to acknowledge the suffering of other human beings, including those aspects of their suffering for which we are directly responsible?”

The mass-market daily Maariv had a front-page post-Biden cartoon of Obama cooking Netanyahu in a pot. It was supposed to illustrate a relationship “in flames.” But the image — a black man cooking a white man over an open fire — also said something about the way Israel views its critics.

Israel is wrong to mock its constructive critics. They alone can usher the country from the one-state dead end — a vital Israeli interest.


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