The Biden Visit a Week Later

Edward Rettig, Acting Director, AJC Israel Office

Media frenzies often divert attention away from substance. So it was last week when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority. His well-publicized mission was to raise confidence between the parties and launch proximity talks, but the PA and Israel have urgent preoccupations elsewhere. The PA, facing fierce competition from Hamas, is obsessed with political survival. The Israelis' top priority, meanwhile, is the Iranian peril. The Biden mission's prospects for success, then, were never high.

The low point of the visit was certainly the announcement by Israel's Interior Ministry that it was planning 1,600 housing units in the North Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, across the 1949 ceasefire lines. Secretary of State Clinton described it as "insulting." Outside government, my colleague, AJC's Kenneth Bandler, wrote eloquently about "taking America for granted." Tom Friedman, inebriated by a metaphor, famously described Israeli conduct as "drunken driving."

Less obviously, the visit also revealed serious flaws in the comportment of the Palestinians and Americans. Not to be outdone as provocateurs, the Palestinians, right after Biden's departure, named a square in Ramallah after Dalal Mughrabi. Ms. Mughrabi led the infamous 1978 coastal road massacre of 38 Israeli civilians (including 13 children and the niece of a United States Senator), and the wounding of another 71. Inexplicably, the American Administration has so far made no public response.

U.S. conduct during the visit demonstrated several continuing conceptual failures. The first is the failure to recognize that Palestinian hostility toward three peace plans ("Camp David" in 2000, "Taba" in 2001, and "Olmert" in 2008) drives Israelis and many others to suspect that the Palestinians do not seek an acceptable compromise, which, if true, calls into question the rationale of the peace process. The Americans evidently neither planned nor did anything on Biden's visit to alleviate this fundamental challenge to Israeli-Palestinian trust.

Second, as tempers cool the Americans may come to question the way they allowed their response to Interior Minister Yishai's provocation to take over the visit, rather than remaining focused on the American goals. Some U.S. actions, unnoticed in the overheated emotions of the moment, may return to haunt the peace process. For example, while in the first part of his speech at Tel Aviv University Biden effectively declared himself a second-generation Zionist, the second half – evidently written in response to Ramat Shlomo – crossed a line rarely traversed in contemporary diplomacy. A politically moderate Israeli scholar, retired diplomat and friend of AJC Dr. Oded Eran, noted the inclusion of a condemnation of the host country from a diplomatic guest still in the country. This he described as "unprecedented" in diplomatic conduct between the states.

Even that extraordinary step was not enough to slake American thirst. Following Netanyahu's profuse apologies, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was summoned to the State Department and given two tongue lashings by Mrs. Clinton, one by phone and one immediately following via CNN. This could boomerang against the American interest in peace. Considering that Yishai's insulting and unwise announcement about the housing units broke no new ground either in terms of actual construction or Israeli policy, it is hard to see how the Palestinians will not internalize the U.S. response as an Administration spoiling for a fight with Israel, and dig in even deeper.

Of global significance, the Administration appears to have exhibited a lack of coolness and clear thinking under pressure. One may wonder how other governments, which have their own issues with Washington, will assess the inability of the U.S. to calibrate its response, and what use they may find for that knowledge.

Third, the Administration may come to regret its characterization of Ramat Shlomo as a "settlement." I have written on this before, regarding Obama's labeling of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Biden erred in the same way. Even taking into account the unacceptability of the Yishai provocation, surely the Americans should realize that their use of "settlement" rhetoric could change the political equation in Israel. East Jerusalem Jews are not settlers. Under Israeli law, they are not entitled to the incentives bestowed on genuine West Bank settlers. Close to 200,000 Israeli Jews (40 percent of the city's Jewish population) live over the pre-1967 lines in Jerusalem. Their political behavior is quite distinct from that of the West Bank Jews, and it makes no sense to drive them into the pro-settler camp.

A seat in the Knesset represents about 25,000 valid ballots, and most elections are decided by terribly narrow margins. Ariel Sharon showed us, in the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, that we need to isolate the hard-core settlers and their supporters. Failing to differentiate between settlers and Jewish East Jerusalemites could drive the two groups into a political alliance. Indeed, while of course it would have been better had Yishai not produced his provocation, it did "smoke out" an ongoing, dramatic Administration misreading of how to promote support for peacemaking in Jerusalem. Bluntly put, unless the U.S. sees itself bulldozing those neighborhoods and driving out their 200,000 Jews, it needs to give greater consideration to the language it uses to describe them.

Mr. Netanyahu was the biggest loser from this visit. The evident disarray in his government demonstrated by Yishai's announcement embarrassed him as much as any purposeful act of foolishness, leaving him weakened. Netanyahu needs to answer two sets of questions.

First, why didn't the Prime Minister's Office staff, which handles the nuts and bolts of daily government life, not learn of and prevent the fiasco, and what can he do—almost a year into his term—to ensure that similar mistakes do not happen again?

And second, what is the future of his ruling coalition? Yishai's Shas party is detached from the big picture and overly focused on its own Orthodox constituency. (Indeed, there are good grounds to think that the crisis was generated by his tunnel vision, seeing only the housing needs of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, and, with spectacular incompetence, ignoring the international ramifications.) Last week showed how dangerous this can be when coupled with a pivotal position of power in the coalition. Perhaps it is time to initiate a new coalition or even to seek new elections. Shas-dependency is a terrible thing for Israel generally, but for this Prime Minister, at this time, most of all.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC