By Amotz Asa-El
For several hours it looked like a great marital reconciliation. US Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a joint press conference in Jerusalem, exchanged jokes and waxed nostalgic over an obviously amicable 30-year acquaintance. Netanyahu asked, “can you believe it’s been that long?” Biden replied, “no, you’re getting older, Bibi,” to which Netanyahu retorted “and you remain younger all the time, and in all that time you’ve been a real friend to me and a real friend to Israel and the Jewish people.”
That was on Tuesday morning. By Tuesday evening the same Biden was fuming over what some later described as “the worst crisis in US Israeli relations in 35 years.”
What sparked Biden’s fury was a formal press release by the Ministry of the Interior that announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in a Jerusalem suburb several hundred metres north of the 1967 border. Biden responded immediately, describing the move as “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.”
Netanyahu and his office insisted that the announcement was not premeditated, that it had been made by mid-level Interior Ministry officials who were merely reporting the passage of a bureaucratic procedure for an old plan whose execution is a good several years away, and whose location is well within the Israeli consensus.
Alas, the announcement could hardly have been more mistimed. Having first angered Biden it then embarrassed Netanyahu, then threw into a tizzy US-Israeli diplomacy and, while at it, dented what little progress had been made on the peace process. Netanyahu’s apology that same day, in which he explained that the communiqué was not his and that there was nothing either new or immediate about it – was dismissed by the Americans as “insufficient.”
Ironically, Biden’s very arrival in Jerusalem was engineered to end a year of bad feelings between the Obama and Netanyahu Administrations. Having finally extracted from Jerusalem and Ramallah agreements to engage in so-called “proximity talks”, whereby negotiations between the two sides would commence via indirect contacts mediated by the Americans, Washington dispatched Biden to festively launch the talks. In an Administration that Netanyahu’s immediate circle had been treating with suspicion, the 68-year-old Biden embodied an island of trust, having been one of Israel’s most outspoken allies in Congress since the era of Golda Meir.
Biden’s anger may have been mainly about the announcement’s timing, but formal American diplomacy focused on its substance, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now demanded that Israel formally cancel that particular construction plan, and in fact declare a freeze on all building activity in the parts of Jerusalem that were not part of Israel until 1967.
For many American politicians that was too much.
Former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain cautioned that the Administration’s treatment of Israel was not going to lead Jerusalem where the Administration would like it to arrive. Obama’s own party colleagues were also becoming increasingly uncomfortable. “Things should be seen in perspective,” said Howard Berman, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, while Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York said that “Israel is a sovereign nation and an ally, not a punching bag,” before exclaiming “enough already!”
A week into the crisis, President Barack Obama himself appeared intent to ramp down the tensions, as he said in an interview with Fox News that disagreements happen between friends and the current one should be seen as merely that. Biden followed suit, joking publicly that it is good to be back in the US where reports of a construction boom are actually good news. Three days on Obama invited Netanyahu, who was anyhow en route to Washington, to meet the President at the White House, a gesture widely seen as part of an effort to control the row’s damage
Still, Clinton’s demand left Washington atop a tall tree as Netanyahu, after several days of consultations with his seven-member inner cabinet, rejected the demand to halt construction in Jerusalem. Netanyahu repeated his commitment to building in the Israeli capital while addressing in Washington the annual conference of the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, whose 7,000 delegates heard him say that building in Jerusalem is for any Israeli government the same as building in Tel Aviv.
The Biden Affair, as this saga is now referred to in Israel, has been costly, at least in the short run, in several ways. Besides straining an already uneasy relationship between the Obama Administration and the Jewish state, it was used by Islamist activists to try and foment violence in Jerusalem, and it halted abruptly what little momentum Washington had gathered in the dialogue between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The violence in Jerusalem lasted hardly 24 hours, comprising clashes with police at several flashpoints along the seam-line between the city’s Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods. The Border Police arrived at all these locations well prepared, and after arresting several dozen rioters successfully dispersed the rest. At the same time, Palestinian troops throughout the West Bank prevented Islamist activists from disrupting public order. An effort by Islamist leaders in Gaza to portray a synagogue renovation in Jerusalem’s Old City as part of a ploy to harm Islamic shrines failed to bring the masses to the streets. Though violence in the West Bank continued simmering, as Israeli troops killed four Palestinians in two separate clashes, Islamists in Gaza were frustrated that the violence was generally contained and fired several rockets into Israel, one of them killing a farm worker from Thailand, the first rocket fatality in southern in Israel in more than a year.
The rockets happened to have been fired just when European Union Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton arrived in Gaza for a visit.
That timing, combined with the Biden Affair, resulted in the Palestinian Authority’s retreat from its agreement to engage in the indirect talks that had brought Biden to Israel in the first place, further diminishing prospects for diplomatic change in the foreseeable future.
Though US envoy George Mitchell later announced the indirect talks would be launched after all, and that their purpose was to produce direct talks, the entire saga has left diplomats, politicians and pundits groping for its deeper meaning.
From an Israeli standpoint, at play was an opportunistic attempt to use a bureaucratic mistake in order to force Israel to make concessions that no Israeli leader has ever even contemplated since Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967. “Israel has every right to build in Jerusalem,” President Shimon Peres told Ashton when she visited him the day before she arrived in Gaza. Peres explained that all governments, including those he headed, followed in Jerusalem the principle of building where Arabs did not reside. That policy, he explained, was accepted by everyone, including Palestinian negotiators, who had never used this issue to disrupt talks with Israel.
Indeed, the location at stake, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, is part of a densely populated belt of Jewish neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem, and overlooks two particularly bustling intersections where north-south and east-west arteries meet. Very few Jews, both in Israel and the Diaspora, are prepared to see any of this relinquished, or for that matter any of the other post-’67 neighborhoods where some 200,000 of Jerusalem’s 500,000 Jews, of all political inclinations, reside.
From an American standpoint, the row is part of a broader context, whereby Obama is at a loss to display diplomatic achievements anywhere around the world. The Administration had failed, for now, first to appease and then to discipline Iran. This followed being previously humiliated by North Korea with impunity, and then by China during a visit there, and having recently been snubbed also by India which decided to enter into an elaborate arms deal with Russia. Obama’s original pretensions to end the Arab-Israeli conflict in one fell swoop strike Netanyahu’s aides as part of a naïveté that is gradually turning into frustration. And of all of America’s global interlocutors, Israel is the easiest on which to vent this exasperation.
Israelis from well beyond Netanyahu’s following were wondering out loud how come Washington acquiesced in Palestinian demands following Netanyahu’s adoption of the two-state formula, the latest of which was that the talks be indirect. “As someone who covered the Camp David talks led by President Carter I wonder whether we would have ever reached a peace agreement had Egypt demanded a settlement freeze as a precondition,” wrote veteran Haaretz columnist and fervent Netanyahu critic Yoel Marcus, who added: “American mediators wasted months listening to Palestinian excuses against direct talks with Israel.”
Whatever its causes and justification, Israel obviously gains no benefit from the administration’s disenchantment. That is why Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren was so alarmed that he held a conference call with all of Israel’s consul-generals in the US in which he reportedly ordered them to storm the media and the public and explain Israel’s position. An acclaimed historian and author of a bestseller on America’s relations with the Middle East, Oren’s perspective concerning the gravity of the crisis cannot be taken lightly. Then again, he denied reports he had said the crisis was the worst in US-Israeli relations since 1975.
The 1975 crisis to which he alluded concerned a threatened American “reassessment” of relations with Israel and halting of arms shipments to the Jewish state after then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin rejected Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s blueprint for a disengagement agreement with Egypt. No such threat or pretext is currently in play: Israel’s economy is vibrant, American civilian aid is history, US military aid is an American interest as it involves thousands of American jobs, and while Netanyahu’s steadfastness reminds many of Rabin’s, few find Obama’s diplomatic record reminiscent of Kissinger’s.