Politics: Picking up the shards in a fragile Jerusalem

Hope was Israel would put on its best face during Biden’s visit, while the PA would shoot itself in the foot. The opposite happened.

Netanyahu biden dinner 311 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu biden dinner 311
(photo credit: AP)
At the peak of the Yom Kippur service, man is likened to a broken shard that compared to his creator is irrelevant, ephemeral and inherently fragile.
This is true of any man, even a prime minister – especially a prime minister who governs in Jerusalem, the most sensitive location in the Middle East tinderbox, where every shard that breaks is heard around the world.
Such was the case this week when US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit that had been going so well in its first few hours shattered into condemnations, apologies and desperate attempts to heal the US-Israel relationship and the peace process that Biden was supposed to triumphantly restart.
It all began with the unmistakable metaphor of Binyamin Netanyahu’s ceremonial gift to Biden of a glass-framed certificate breaking during their joint press conference under the weight of the prime minister’s elbow on a podium at his official residence in Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s aides heard the sound of the glass breaking and rushed to bring him an unframed copy of the certificate, but the prime minister was unaware of the break and was embarrassed when he lifted up the broken glass.
That incident was joked away by the two longtime friends. But when Netanyahu was similarly unaware that a low-level clerk in the Interior Ministry had approved a 1,600-home building project in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, it was no laughing matter.
The certificate and Biden’s visit were also comparable in that both were framed with the best intentions. The Jewish National Fund document announced the naming of a forest in honor of Biden’s 92-year-old mother, Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan Biden, who died two months ago and who was the inspiration for the vice president’s self-declared love for Israel.
“The lesson is that life can be unexpected and delicate, but what really matters is your integrity,” said Netanyahu’s spokesman Nir Hefetz, who prevented a more embarrassing incident by ensuring that a copy of the certificate would be on hand.
It was that integrity that Netanyahu was so desperate to present to Biden after it had been called into question in the White House. The hope ahead of the visit was that Israel would put on its best face, while the Palestinians would shoot themselves in the foot by holding a ceremony naming a square in Ramallah after Coastal Road mass murderer Dalal Mughrabi, who killed 37 Israelis and wounded 71 in the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history.
Although the timing was coincidental, Netanyahu’s senior adviser Ron Dermer scheduled a long-awaited announcement of a new governmental authority that would regularly monitor Palestinian incitement for Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting, while Biden was in town and a day before the ceremony in Ramallah.
Israel had asked Biden to condemn the praise for Mughrabi. But the Palestinians were smart enough to delay the ceremony in order not to distract attention from the uproar over the building in Ramat Shlomo. Meanwhile, the formation of the anti-incitement authority was subsequently also delayed for technical reasons.
“We got hit on the head for bad timing on Ramat Shlomo,” an official close to Netanyahu said. “But naming a square after Dalal Mughrabi – that’s not just bad timing – that’s actually really bad.”
NETANYAHU FIRST heard about the Ramat Shlomo building project when Hefetz interrupted a meeting at the prime minister’s Knesset office with Kadima MK Nachman Shai, who presented his doctorate to Netanyahu, his former colleague at the embassy in Washington.
Hefetz informed Netanyahu that he had read about the decision to build in the northeastern Jerusalem haredi neighborhood on the Internet. The prime minister apparently had not heard of Ramat Shlomo and asked where it was.
Had direct talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas begun, perhaps Netanyahu would have heard about the neighborhood from him, because it was one of the few places over the Green Line that Abbas told former prime minister Ehud Olmert that Israel could keep in a final-status agreement.
According to a December 8 Channel 10 report, when Olmert offered the Palestinians 94.5 percent of the West Bank and another 5.5% of pre-1967 Israel, Abbas responded with his own map in which Israel would keep only 1.9% of the area over the Green Line. Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and some Jewish Jerusalem neighborhoods were not included in the 1.9%, but Ramat Shlomo specifically was.
When informed of the announcement about Ramat Shlomo, Netanyahu immediately called Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who told him that he knew a decision about the neighborhood was expected eventually but that he did not know the planning committee would be meeting while Biden was in town.
Yishai told Netanyahu that he would take responsibility for his ministry’s decision and deflect blame from the prime minister himself. But Yishai also said he thought the public would not understand why Israel was apologizing for building in Jerusalem, which is not included in the 10-month construction moratorium in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu’s associates said he trusted Yishai, and believed him that he did not initiate the building project in Ramat Shlomo to make a statement to the US. This despite Yishai’s past declarations against America interfering in Israel’s decisions about where to and where not to build, and his admission that had attempted to undermine American Middle East peacemaking efforts in the past.
On the eve of US President Barack Obama’s June 3 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, The Jerusalem Post reported that Yishai announced that he would respond to Obama’s outreach to the Arabs by expanding West Bank settlements.
“The American policies are not coincidental and everyone must know that the bad situation will only get worse in the near future,” Yishai told leaders of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip at his Jerusalem office. “I promise to use my ministry, all the resources at my disposal and the ministry’s impact on local authorities for the good of expanding settlements.”
Yishai told the settler leaders that he would not tolerate the removal of even a single outpost in Judea and Samaria and that he did not understand why nothing was being done against some 57,000 illegal Arab buildings in the Negev, east Jerusalem and the Ramle-Lod area.
“In this difficult time, it’s important to meet and strengthen one another and set policies accordingly,” Yishai told the Post after that meeting. “We respect the United States and we want to maintain a positive relationship with the Americans, but we must stand up for our principles and we cannot accept dictates that the public cannot tolerate.”
Following his call to Yishai, Netanyahu began damage control, phoning Biden, who had heard about the plan for Ramat Shlomo while on a visit to Yad Vashem. Biden then kept Netanyahu waiting for an hour and a half for their scheduled dinner together.
During that time, Biden met with his staff at the David Citadel Hotel and was in touch with Washington to decide how to respond to the Ramat Shlomo announcement. Netanyahu’s associates said the dinner was still warm in more ways than one, and that Biden was apologetic about condemning the building project.
“They felt forced to respond and they [also] don’t like that [the Ramat Shlomo controversy] overshadowed other elements of the visit,” a senior Israeli official said. “This is the last thing you want in a vice presidential visit. It’s an unfortunate bump in the road, but the same values [of Israel and the US] are still in place. There is an ongoing disagreement between Israel and the US on building in Jerusalem and that would have been true whether this was announced the week before or the week after.”
But with all their attempts to downplay the Ramat Shlomo incident, Netanyahu’s associates acknowledged that Biden’s visit was a missed opportunity to signal to the Palestinians, the world and the people of Israel that the US-Israel relationship was still as strong as ever, despite the well-documented personal tensions between the prime minister and Obama.
They realized that few people will remember the fervently Zionist speech Biden delivered at Tel Aviv University or the warm statements he wrote in the Prime Minister’s Residence guest book about Israel being lucky to have Netanyahu and the US being lucky to have Israel as a friend.
A source close to Netanyahu revealed that in a section of the guest book that is meant to be kept private, Biden wrote Netanyahu, “Your prophesy came half true,” referring to a prediction he made nearly 20 years ago in Washington that Biden would one day be president while he was prime minister.
Had Netanyahu truly been a prophet, he could have foreseen the problemin Ramat Shlomo and would have been able to prevent the vicepresidential visit from being marred. But the events of the past weekundoubtedly reinforced his sense of mortality.
A positive conversation between Netanyahu and Biden Thursday morningofficially declared that the controversy over Ramat Shlomo had ended.But next week, EU Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton, who is not nearlyas friendly to Israel, is coming, and many more challenges lie ahead.
How Netanyahu handles those challenges will determine whether he willsucceed in keeping Jerusalem undivided and unbroken, and whether thecountry’s relations with its allies are stronger than glass.