Instead of embracing Mr Biden, Israel showed him the finger, choosing the very day of his visit to announce the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. That counts as an in-your-face insult to a US administration that has demanded Israel freeze all settlement activity in the territories conquered in 1967, which include East Jerusalem. Little wonder that President Obama was said to be "incandescent with anger", spending 90 minutes on the phone to his deputy drafting a statement of condemnation rare for its ferocity.
The incident, which Mr Netanyahu brushed off as a problem of timing rather than substance, has caused something close to despair among Mr Obama's supporters. The impression that the US president can simply be pushed around both at home and abroad appears to be getting stronger by the week."That Israel would do this is almost mind-boggling given everything that has gone before," Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, told the Financial Times."While in reality, President Obama has scored quite a few points in foreign policy during his first year-plus in office, he has a problem with the growing perception that every time he shoots for the net, the ball bounces around the rim and doesn't go in."
"The secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to Israel's security, and she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they committed to this relationship and to the peace process," Crowley said, later adding, "We accept what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said. By the same token, he is the head of the Israeli government and ultimately is responsible for the actions of that government."Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman and Special Envoy George Mitchell have been working the phones hard, trying to save the initiative for "proximity talks." They spoke with President Abbas, Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit of Egypt, Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh of Jordan, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir al-Thani, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa.
In addition to the 1,600 units announced this week for ultra-Orthodox families in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, the Israeli government has plans for a total of 50,000 more housing units in east Jerusalem in the coming years, Haaretz reported this week.
"Beyond the embarrassment and the condemnation, which could fade with time, a problem has developed here in the relations between the countries, which were in any case shaky already," said one diplomatic observer, who is very familiar with what is happening in Washington."Netanyahu's behavior only further diminishes [the Americans'] desire, motivation and trust with respect to holding a real discussion with him about Iran. They see him as unreliable, someone who is not serious - as 'tricky Bibi.' Even if they believe him when he says he didn't know [about the housing units in Gilo] and was surprised - this still doesn't get him out of trouble. Now they are certain no one is in charge here, there is no one to work with. And even if they do reach satisfactory agreements with Netanyahu, someone from the coalition, or some official or bureaucrat, always comes along to torpedo things and pour oil on the fire."
The U.S. based Anti-Defamation League said late Friday that it was "stunned" by Clinton's "dressing down" of Israel."We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States," said Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), in a statement.The ADL called Clinton's remarks a "gross overreaction" to a "policy difference among friends.""One can only wonder how far the U.S. is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians in the hope they see it is in their interest to return to the negotiating table," Foxman said.
“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.”
The statement issued by Netanyahu's bureau said that in light of the ongoing dispute between Israel and the United States over construction in East Jerusalem, the plans for new housing in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood should not have been approved this particular week. It also said the premier had ordered Yishai to draft procedures that would prevent a recurrence. In other words, Yishai is welcome to submit more plans for Jewish construction in East Jerusalem next week, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will no longer be here.Based on Biden's reaction, it seems that he (and, presumably, his boss) has decided that it is better to leave with a few sour grapes than to quarrel with the vineyard guard. In his speech at Tel Aviv University, he said he appreciated Netanyahu's pledge that there would be no recurrence. But what exactly does that mean? That next time he comes, the Planning and Building Committee will be asked to defer discussion of similar plans until the honored guest has left?With the media storm dying down, Netanyahu can breathe a sigh of relief.In a sense, the uproar actually helped him: To wipe the spit off his face, Biden had to say it was only rain. Therefore, he lauded Netanyahu's assertion that actual construction in Ramat Shlomo would begin only in another several years.Thus Israel essentially received an American green light for approving even more building plans in East Jerusalem.
Suffice it to say that his argument -- Obama shouldn't pick a fight with Israel over East Jerusalem settlements, and instead should focus on restarting proximity talks -- is the triumph of process over peace. Miller literally encourages both sides to "continue the dance," to perpetuate the untenable status quo.
Meeting with Mitchell doesn't constitute much more than Middle Eastern hospitality; both sides are recipients of massive amounts of U.S. aid, and neither is likely to turn him down if he wants to pay a visit. But holding separate conversations with Mitchell is hardly a "peace process" - it may be little more than political theater.