Israel relieved after Biden speech

J'lem appreciates comments about ties to land, sobriety about peace process.

By
March 12, 2010 02:07
US Vice President Joseph Biden gestures as he spea

biden tel aviv university 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Senior diplomatic officials warmly welcomed US Vice President Joe Biden’s speech at Tel Aviv University on Thursday, saying the friendly, supportive discourse at the end of his turbulent three-day trip showed that the furor over the announcement of 1,600 new housing units in the capital’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood had come and gone.

As he did at a press conference on Tuesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, before the Ramat Shlomo issue broke, Biden expressed deep-seated affection and respect for Israel, but did not side-step the Ramat Shlomo issue that cast a heavy cloud over his visit.

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“Two days ago, the Israeli government announced it would advance planning for new housing units in east Jerusalem, I realize this is a very touchy subject in Israel as well as in my own country. But because that decision, in my view, undermined the trust required for productive negotiations, I, at the request of President Obama condemned it immediately and unequivocally,” Biden said.

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After pausing to listen to the unexpected applause that accompanied these words in the Tel Aviv University auditorium, Biden explained how he, “such a strong supporter of Israel,” could have spoken so strongly given his and the US’s unwavering ties to Israel.

“Quite frankly, folks, only a friend can deliver the hardest truth,” he said.

Biden said he appreciated the statement Netanyahu issued just prior to his speech, pledging to put into place a process to prevent the recurrence of the events that marred his visit, and clarifying that the actual construction of the Ramat Shlomo project was years away.



“That’s significant, because it gives negotiations the time to resolve this, as well as other outstanding issues. Because when it was announced, I was on the West Bank. Everyone there thought it had meant immediately the resumption of the construction of 1,600 new units,” he said.

“Look, folks,” Biden continued, “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. The most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go promptly and go forward in good faith. We can’t delay, because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our differences and they sow hate.”

This segment of the speech followed intensive consultations in the morning between Netanyahu’s and Biden’s staff members, after which Netanyahu released a carefully crafted statement that said he summoned “Interior Minister Eli Yishai and expressed his displeasure at the timing of the announcement of another stage in the planning process of a Jerusalem building project.

“In light of the ongoing disagreement between Israel and the US on building in Jerusalem,” the statement read, Netanyahu “said there was no need to advance the planning process this week and instructed Interior Minister Yishai to adopt procedures to prevent such an incident from recurring.”

Netanyahu spoke to Biden, the statement continued, and “expressed his regret over the unfortunate timing. The prime minister informed the vice president that this specific project had moved through various planning stages over several years. The final approval process will in all likelihood take more than a year and the beginning of actual construction would likely take several years.”

According to sources in the Prime Minister’s Office, adopting “procedures to prevent such an incident from recurring” meant that a mechanism would be developed whereby any decision in any ministry that had diplomatic or security ramifications would be brought to the attention of the Prime Minister’s Office so Netanyahu would not be surprised, as he was by Tuesday’s announcement.

During his speech, Biden reiterated both his personal and Washington’s unwavering support and “deep friendship and kinship” for Israel, and repeated the same themes – including the US determination to keep Iran from attaining nuclear weapons and the desire to see the “proximity talks” with the Palestinians turn into direct negotiations – that he spoke of publicly on Tuesday before the announcement of the Ramat Shlomo construction plans.

“That his speech was so friendly after the last couple of days says much about the depth of the relationship,” one government source said.

There were a few new elements in the speech that were deemed significant in Jerusalem, first and foremost his statement at the beginning that both he and Obama know “that the United States has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel. Thank you so much.”

Later in the speech he said, “American support for Israel is not just an act of friendship; it’s an act of fundamental national self-interest on the part of the United States, a key component to our broader efforts to secure this region and a wider world, as well as our own security.”

According to Israeli officials, comments like this by US officials at Biden’s level are rare and significant in that they contradict those in the US, such as adherents to the Walt-Mearsheimer school of thought, who argue that America does not benefit from its close ties with Israel, and that the relationship is only a burden on the US.

Second, Biden spoke about the Jewish people’s historical and religious connection to the land of Israel, something many thought was sorely missing from Obama’s June 14 speech at Cairo University, where he implied that the Jews’ tie to Israel only had to do with their tragic history and the Holocaust.

“My father often spoke passionately about the special connection between the Jewish people and this land,” Biden said.

His comments about the connection to the land was not lost on Jerusalem, which to a certain degree viewed these statements as a corrective to Obama’s. “This shows that the administration was aware of the criticism,” one official said.

And third, the speech was viewed in Jerusalem as “sober,” not as Pollyannaish along the lines of “all that is needed is to give peace a chance.”

Instead, Biden acknowledged the difficulties facing the country and demonstrated an understanding that he was talking to a nation that had undergone a tough decade that bred much cynicism.

“We’ve been down this road before and so have you, which every time makes it a little harder to go down the road again,” he said of the diplomatic process.

“I know that Israel’s faith in the prospects for peace have been shaken by the searing experience of withdrawing from Lebanon and from Gaza, only to be rewarded with rocket fire and ambushes across your border,” he said. “I know you’ve been frustrated by the unwillingness of some Palestinian leaders to curb incitement and take the risk that peace requires, just as when the West Bank checkpoints proliferate and settlements grow, the Palestinians experience their own crisis in confidence and come to doubt Israeli intentions.”

Every day, “Israel faces bravely threats no country should have to endure,” he said. “America stands with you shoulder-to-shoulder in facing these threats. President Obama and I represent an unbroken chain of American leaders who have understood this critical, strategic relationship.”

There was also satisfaction with Biden’s declaration that the indirect proximity talks are “just that, indirect talks, indirect negotiations. The only path, though, to finally resolving the permanent-status issues, including borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem, are direct talks.”

The vice president also backed a key Israeli position when he said during the question and answer period that all the core issues must be dealt with in direct talks with the Palestinians, and that one issue – like borders – cannot be taken out of the basket and dealt with independently of the others.

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