Israel could not have asked for a more positive beginning to US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit this week. Positive body language abounded, with all the requisite hugs, warm gestures, smiles and general good vibes.

There were verbalized emotions, such as the vice president’s comment to President Shimon Peres that Israel “captured my heart.” Biden even made declarations with diplomatic ramifications. The cornerstone of the Israeli-US relationship, he said on Tuesday, “is our absolute, total unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security,” and then managed to top even that with the adamant declaration that “there is no space between the US and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

After almost a year of distance – most notably contrasted with President Barack Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech that focused on reconciliation with Islam – the Biden trip, with its private meetings aimed principally at coordinating strategy for thwarting Iran’s nuclear drive, was turning out to be everything that an embattled, nervous Jewish nation could dream of.

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Ramat Shlomo residents don’t understand what all the fuss is about


As Israeli Apartheid Week draws to a close, it sometimes seems that the only real friend Israel has in the entire world is the good old US of A, and the Biden visit was confirmation of that partnership. By sundown Tuesday, it would have been fitting to note that on another Tuesday, the third day of creation, God said “and it was good” twice.

But then it happened. A three-year chain of bureaucratic events climaxed to spectacularly damaging effect. In a staggering example of diplomatic obtuseness, the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem Regional Planning and Construction Commission announced the approval of 1,600 additional housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a haredi neighborhood of 20,000 in northeast Jerusalem – inside the sovereign city limits, but squarely over the pre-1967 Green Line.

Safeguards that some previous governments had put in place to ensure the careful handling of such sensitive issues were plainly not in effect this time. Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), preoccupied with a coalition crisis over  conversion policy legislation, said he was not informed of the decision, nor would he have expected to be. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had evidently failed to make it clear that he wished to be informed of any such developments, and thus was not alerted ahead of the announcement.

Biden and his wife Jill arrived over an hour late to dinner with Netanyahu and his wife Sarah on Tuesday night. And when they finally did show up, they brought with them what constituted a major league castigation. “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem,” Biden said, in a statement released during dinner. “The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”

SUCH RIGHT-hand-not-knowing-what-the-left-hand-is-doing blunders strike a blow to Israel’s image, and a blow on more substantive levels too.

For a start, the Netanyahu government looks completely incompetent. If the announcement on Ramat Shlomo had been a calculated, coherent decision aimed at torpedoing the fledgling “proximity talks”, or aimed at expressing an unshakable commitment to the fast-growing haredi population desperately in need of housing, its merits or failings could have been legitimately discussed.

But the reality is much more prosaic – and worrying. The expansion of Ramat Shlomo accords with broad government policy. Differently timed, and ideally quietly explained to Washington ahead of time, it might have prompted public displeasure from the United States – that the administration had tried and failed to persuade Netanyahu to extend the settlement-building moratorium to east Jerusalem – but likely no more than that.

Instead, because of sheer ineptitude, the timing of the announcement immediately threatened the “proximity talks” in which Netanyahu has stressed Israel has a profound interest. It united the Palestinians, the Arab world and much of the international community in a chorus of anti-Israel condemnation.

And most unhappily of all, it embarrassed our most important ally at a time when this ally, as represented by Biden, was making a heartfelt effort to improve relations and assure Israel of its abiding support.

It seem fair to assume that, in the long run, the truly deep and significant bonds between our two countries will endure. The shared values and interests, many of them encapsulated in the commitment to freedom and democracy, plainly outweigh even significant missteps like this one. But to attain these common goals requires avoiding serious mistakes that embarrass our friends and strengthen our enemies. To attain these common goals requires profound trust between allies.

Now Israel must set about rebuilding that trust.

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