Analysis: Biden’s get-your-act-together lecture

In his visit’s centerpiece address, the VP sometimes sounded like a frustrated parent addressing a beloved but errant child.

March 11, 2010 16:06
U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, center, gestures

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


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If Joe Biden had spent much of his visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories fuming at the Netanyahu government for Tuesday’s dysfunctional announcement of new building plans in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, he didn’t dwell overly on the issue in a centerpiece address at Tel Aviv University on Thursday.

Nonetheless, Biden’s speech, while emphatically supportive and friendly, also sounded at times like a get-your-act-together lecture from a frustrated parent to a beloved but occasionally errant child.

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His brief finessing of the Ramat Shlomo fiasco – which was an act of spectacularly poor timing that simultaneously humiliated Israel’s best ally, united the Palestinians, the Arab world and much of the international community in condemnation of Israel, and likely spelled the delay rather than the acceleration of the construction project itself – constituted a lesson in astute public diplomacy that the prime minister would do well to learn from.

In language that could only have been finalized shortly before he delivered the speech, Biden reiterated that it was Israel’s perceived breach of trust that had been so galling – at a time, with the fragile proximity talks just getting under way, when trust was at a premium. He explained that he had been taken completely by surprise to hear of the building decision, when he was himself in the West Bank, and elaborated that it had been understood by the Palestinians to mean that major construction was about to begin.

Related: Excerpts of US Vice President Joe Biden's Tel Aviv University address

But then, having detailed the reasons for his rare resort to the language of condemnation, Biden began the process of smoothing over the dispute – by referring to behind-the-scenes discussions he had held with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in which the prime minister had, first promised to ensure that there would no similarly discomfiting surprises in the future and, second, assured him that even the start of the new construction was probably several years away. (Woe betide Netanyahu if he backtracks on that.)

The key to this latter assurance from Netanyahu, said the vice president, was that it gave “time” for the negotiations.

No, ran the subtext, the US Administration does not support Israeli building in east Jerusalem. But if renewed negotiations with the Palestinians make headway, as Washington insists in the face of years of bitter experience they can and should, then the status of Jerusalem and all other core issues can be resolved, and the issue of who can and will build where becomes straightforward.

In the traditional manner of a statesman seeking to underline his commitment to the country he is visiting, Biden began his address by recalling his first meeting here with prime minister Golda Meir four decades ago. He spoke of the concern he had felt for Israel after hearing her analysis of the threats and challenges it faced. And he stressed the contrast between himself at the time, a young US senator, and the older, experienced, maternal Meir.

As his speech went on, however, it become clear that Biden now saw those roles reversed: Here he was now visiting Israel again -- but as anything but a neophyte. A veteran who sits at the right hand of the leader of the free world, he was the parental figure, offering love and reassurance to young, intermittently reckless Israel. Here he was, telling us firmly what we ought to do, giving us the benefits of his life’s experience, and hoping we’d have the good sense to follow his advice, but knowing that he couldn’t impose his choices upon us, and vowing that he’d be there to comfort us if it all ended in tears – provided, of course, that we hadn’t done anything so wildly unconscionable as to be beyond even parental salvation.

He touched on all the issues that matter most to us. Unlike President Obama in Cairo last June, Biden did take the few moments to note the historic ties between the Jewish people and this land. He insisted that the US was “determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Period.” He empathized with Israelis’ shaken faith in the prospect of peace given the violence that had followed us across the border when we pulled out of Lebanon and Gaza. And he reiterated that, for all the bumps and tensions, the US-Israeli bond was fundamentally “impervious to any shifts.”

But he also reminded us, as if we didn’t know, that the status quo was not sustainable – that we needed an accommodation with the Palestinians in order to maintain a Jewish, democratic Israel. And he argued that we should take brave, even risky decisions to change that status quo for the better.

Like every American leader in recent years, he urged us to seize the opportunity, to defy our heavy skepticism and accept that we finally have credible Palestinian partners. Like every American leader in recent years, too, he sought to guide us to a peaceful future with the implied assurance that mighty America knows better than we do about how to achieve sustained security – and it won’t be by building more walls -- and that mighty America will protect us if it all goes terribly wrong. Like that other Joey, the one from Friends, Biden was promising, “I’ll be there for you.”

Of course, the conviction in Washington that they understand better than we do where our interests lie would only have been strengthened by the Ramat Shlomo affair.

Having largely divided responsibility for past failures equally between us and the Palestinians -- an even-handedness that many would resent -- Biden actually came close to primarily blaming Israel toward the conclusion of his address, when remarking that it’s hard to be “a light unto the nations… a beacon for others, when you’re constantly at war.”

Only near the very end of his text did Biden allow a trace of doubt to cloud the vision –  doubt that year after year of spurned Israeli offers to the Palestinians should have made far more manifest -- when he offered this morsel of atypical humility: “I can’t tell you that peace will come easily,” said the vice president. “You know better.”

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