Is this really my first post of 2010? My bad....
There have been numerous ups & downs in the Israel-US relationship, and last week's fiasco between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Joe Biden hardly represents the worst low of this complicated international relationship. In February 2005, the Bush administration sanctioned its ally in the "war on terror" over Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles sales to China, suspending arms shipments and cooperative endeavors for many months. In September 1991, US President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker held up $10 billion in US loan guarantees for many months in protest of Israel's settlement obsession. Going further back, President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger "reassessed" the US-Israeli relationship in 1975 and suspended arms shipments to Israel for 6 months. The "atmospherics" between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu in 2010 are reported to be awful, but we are nowhere near the kind of hysterics that went on between the US and Israel over the settlement issue in decades past. At least not yet.
Still, there is something of a kind of "fuck you" quality that seems inexplicable and distasteful in how VP Joe Biden was treated by the Israelis on March 9, 2010. Forget the endless backstory -- here is what is important: Joe Biden has been one of Israel's best friends in the Senate since the mid 1970s; as he rose to become an expert in the Senate on foreign affairs he was cultivated and allowed himself to be cultivated by Israel and the Israeli lobby. In Congress, being pro-Israel is easy and is the norm. But American Jews sensed something more in Joe Biden (the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 2001-2003 and 2007-08) than pandering knee-jerk opportunism (like that practiced by Hillary Clinton, soon-to-be Senator of New York). Joe Biden was a "true friend of Israel," the special status which helps catapult a senator from Delaware into the big leagues.
Israeli politicians love such Senators. "True friends of Israel" are treated like visiting High Commissioners whenever they pass through. Meetings with President Peres and PM Netanyahu, helicopter tours of the Holy Land with the Defense Minister, meetings with any Israeli politician you'd like, all with the finest coffee and danish. No expense is spared. After all, Israel receives $3 billion a year annually in US foreign aid, and Congress is the place where these things are scored and marked up.
You'd think that for the 60 hours that Joe Biden made his first visit to Israel as the US Vice President, the Israelis could orchestrate an embarrassment-free visit. Unless the Israeli master-of-ceremonies is Binyamin Netanyahu.
With Bibi serving as Biden's host, Biden was forced to condemn Israeli behavior during his visit (something he had no intention of doing), and Secretary of State Clinton was publicly calling the 60-hour visit an "insult to the United States" and delivering a private verbal bitch-slap to Netanyahu himself. The State Department called in Israel's ambassador to deliver a stern upbraiding. David Axelrod called the Israeli behavior an "insult and affront" and everyone questioned the "reliability" of Netanyahu. Tom Friedman wrote that Israeli leaders "have lost total contact with reality."
Thursday morning, as he was to depart Israel-Palestine, Biden gave a speech at Tel Aviv University. His prepared speech spoke of the "incredible hospitality" of the Israeli people. But nothing that occurred in his 60-hour visit was hospitable. Biden had come to praise Israel and the Palestinian Authority for agreeing to enter into a round of shuttle diplomacy (called for some strange reason "proximity" talks), the first supposedly substantive negotiations between the two sides in over a year. Biden was to deliver a message of friendship and affection for Israel, a "well done" slap on the back to Netanyahu for bucking his right-wing base and agreeing to some tactical adjustments in settlement policy. Biden was also there to let Israel know that the US is going to work hard with the world community to punish Iran for its adventurism. It was supposed to be a "good cop" visit, all hugs and kisses.
The Sunday before Biden touched down, on the very day that the Arab League endorsed Palestinian participation in the proximity talks, the Israeli cabinet announced it would go ahead ("for security reasons") with 119 new units in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit (in violation of its commitment to a partial moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank). Biden thus arrived in Israel with a mini-crisis on his hands. The Palestinians were outraged by Israel's announcement, but not enough to abandon the talks -- better to score an easy diplomatic point than walk away from the only game in town. In fact, the Israeli cabinet likely knew it could make the announcement without jeopardizing the proximity talks -- the Ramallah leadership is so bereft and broken that it endures such Israeli slaps with little more than an ineffectual lambasting.
What came on Tuesday in Israeli minds was far less controversial than the 119 units in Beitar Ilit. A subcommittee of the Interior Ministry approved 1600 long-planned units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, on the northern edge of what Israelis consider to be municipal Jerusalem. Back in November of 2009 when Netanyahu agreed to a partial moratorium on construction of settlements, he specifically reserved for himself and for all who would listen the God-given right for his Israeli government to build housing units in the "undivided eternal capital of the Jewish people." But the sheer brazenness of the announcement, the quantity of it, and the timing of it, was simply too much to ignore.
Biden went ballistic with Netanyahu that evening. It wasn't simply the affront to the Vice President; it represented a strategic threat to American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Netanyahu, claiming no prior knowledge of the Interior Ministry's decision, apologized for the timing of the announcement, but not for the substance of the move. On Wednesday, the Palestinians in Ramallah were more than pleased to hear Biden condemn the Israeli move. By Thursday, Biden was delivering a two-part message: 1) there is simply "no space" between Israel and the US on matters of security, and Israel has no better friend (the original message); and 2) "only close friends can tell you the truth" -- that the settlement policy is a disaster to Israel and to the United States (the new message, probably crafted by Middle East hand Dennis Ross, who was on the trip visiting with old friends on both sides).
It doesn't matter whether Netanyahu knew what was coming as his own government announced (with blaring fanfare) a decision which would infuriate the world and play perfectly to his political domestic base. Whatever the timing, the construction of new Jewish housing units in parts of Jerusalem that weren't part of Israel before 1967 is a specific goal of the Netanyahu government. (Check this link to see how Jerusalem's municipal boundaries have been expanded by Israeli decree.) In fact, this government would not exist if Netanyahu weren't committed to expanding Jewish neighborhoods in Arab East Jerusalem. The expansion of Jerusalem construction was one of the key platform planks of Netanyahu's government. This Likud Israeli government does not care one tiny bit what Hilary Clinton, Joe Biden, or David Axelrod (let alone Barack Obama) think of housing construction in Israeli-defined municipal Jerusalem. Israel came into existence against great odds by openly defying the great post-World War I British superpower. It is part of the historical DNA of the modern Zionist movement to disregard the prodding of foe and friend alike. As throughout the Middle East, so too in Israel: defiance of the colonial overlord is an essential ingredient for domestic popularity, and a key element of the proud national self-narrative.
On the other hand, Netanyahu does not want to see his second shot at the PM-ship of Israel go down in flames like his first go-around between 1996 and 1999. His first PM-ship unraveled because he could not have it both ways. He could not play to his domestic base and make his American allies simultaneously happy. Months ago, I speculated that the Obama administration could not envision a successful negotiation between Israel and Palestine with Netanyahu at the Israeli helm, and with Mahmoud Abbas at the Palestinian helm. But these are the cards you are dealt. Poor George Mitchell has brought the two distrusting sides to accept the farcical theater of shuttle diplomacy, and will dutifully race back and forth the 40 minute drive between West Jerusalem and Ramallah until the talks inevitably unravel.
Eighteen months ago, Israel's supporters in America thanked their lucky stars that Barack Hussein Obama had Joe Biden to his left and Rahm Emanuel to his right, with Hilary Clinton in Foggy Bottom. Israel's supporters thought all would be well, whatever Obama's friendliness with Chicago-based egghead critics of Israel. Leave it to the bumbling and inept Binyamin Netanyahu to singlehandedly turn the entire Obama administration into an orchestra of Israel criticism. It couldn't happen to a more deserving asshole.