Analysis: Construction freeze fiasco a test for J'lem, US

Biden's declaration to hold both the Palestinians and Israelis accountable for statements or actions that inflame tensions shifted part of the onus from Israel to the United States.

March 11, 2010 23:00
4 minute read.
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, center, gestures

biden arrives in israel 311 ap. (photo credit: AP)


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WASHINGTON – To those who have doubted the sincerity of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s embrace of peace talks since his first visit to the Obama White House last May, the premier has said, “Test me.”

This week, before his American examiners, he failed his practical exam in spectacular fashion.

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As US Vice President Joe Biden embarked on a goodwill tour of Israel, its chief purpose lavishing praise and affection on an Israeli public anxious over America’s devotion, he was slapped with news that the Israeli government had approved 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem.

Biden seemed to accept Netanyahu’s assurance that he had been  blindsided by the plan’s approval Tuesday, carried out by an Interior Ministry in the hands of Shas leader Eli Yishai, and that it was indeed regrettable timing.

But in response, the Americans have now thrown down a gauntlet of their own.

First, Biden kept Netanyahu waiting for their al fresco dinner at his residence for an hour and a half, drafting a reaction to the construction that began with the word “condemn,” a vocabulary choice he made clear in his Tel Aviv University speech was coordinated with US President Barack Obama himself.

As noted by former US Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller – who could not recall an instance of America “condemning” Israel in the past 20 years – “usually we veto UN Security Council resolutions that have the word ‘condemn’ used against Israel.”

More significantly, Biden then warned Israelis – and Palestinians – that there would be consequences for moves away from peace.

Reiterating his comments made beside PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah the day before, on Thursday in Tel Aviv he declared, “As we move forward I promise you this: The United States will continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.”

With Palestinians threatening to call off the recently announced indirect talks unless the new housing plan is scrapped, those words shifted part of the onus from Israel to the United States. Instead of this being just a test of how Jerusalem will respond, it is also a test of how Washington will respond.

It is an interesting upping of the stakes coming, as it does, against a backdrop of American inability to realize its demands.

The Obama administration quickly ran into trouble last year when it called for Israel to halt all settlement construction – including in east Jerusalem – as a means of getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks restarted. When Israel balked, the US eventually settled for a partial freeze, excluding east Jerusalem, that hurt its image in the Arab world. Not coincidentally, it was also unable to convince the Arabs to take steps toward normalization with Israel.

The process left the US looking weak and suspect in Israeli eyes. Biden’s mission, in part, was to fix that perception. Instead, he came away expressing language more hostile of Israel than ever, albeit wrapped in praise for the Jewish state and commitments to its security.

Princeton Middle East scholar Stephen P. Cohen observed that the experience meant that the US would become bolder in its actions because the status quo approach wasn’t working.

“I think the impact is going to be that if Mitchell is going to realize that his whole effort is not going to be a failure, he’s going to have to do something dramatic to save it,” he said, referring to US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who has been working to get the sides to peace talks.

But many longtime Middle East observers took a different view, suggesting that once again, the Obama administration would not measure up to the standards it set.

“I don’t think we should extrapolate from the severe tone of the vice president’s reaction,” said Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “One should not overlook the deep, personal insult that was felt, and at the same time one should not exaggerate the strategic impact this will have on the relationship.”

He noted that Biden’s purpose was to turn over a new leaf, adding “I don’t think the Obama administration is going to be deterred from that objective.”

Indeed, the criticism he leveled at Israel did not change the basic message of his speech, which was one of reassurance and friendship. He made sure to include the very points Israelis were most eager to hear – Israel’s historic connection to its ancient land and that the unbreakable US-Israel bond would not be weakened by party changes.

“The tone is sharp. The words are tough. However, I do not see this as a prelude to a serious deterioration in US-Israeli relations,” Miller agreed. “I don’t see this as part of an effort to impose accountability [or] sanctions on Israel.”

He argued that the US was too dependent on Israel’s acquiescence to its Middle East policies – specifically, the peace process and Iran – to push Israel too hard, and that the likely payoff would be too low to justify the domestic aggravation.

And, pointing to the past year of US criticism and retreat on settlements, he added, “They have not yet decided whether their policy should punish the Israelis or pander to them.” Instead, he dismissed the talk of accountability.

“We’re no longer feared, admired or respected as we need to be because small powers – and not just Israel – say no to us without cost or consequence,” he said. This case will just devolve into “another no.” Or, another failed test.

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