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Breaking glass in Jerusalem

March 12, 2010

BidenIt’s been a tough week for Joe Biden in the Middle East. Our former colleague in Jerusalem Adam Entous, now based in Washington, travelled with the US vice president and filed these reflections on the mixed messages and omens, some ominous, some perhaps less so, that accompanied President Barack Obama’s emissary to this most symbolic of cities.

“First Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cancelled talks in Cairo and flew to hospital for gallbladder surgery. Then came an Israeli gift of broken glass and an eerie power outage in the “Hall of Remembrance” for the Holocaust. By the time the lights flickered back on, Biden’s Middle East fortunes were sealed with an Israeli announcement that it would build 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers, ignoring U.S. and Palestinian objections. It was an embarrassing setback that put a spotlight on the challenge the U.S. administration faces getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.”

Adam was not the only one who noticed that Israeli Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu handed Biden a gift that, it turned out, comprised partly of broken glass.

As Israeli forces braced for the possibility that Palestinian anger about Jewish settlements might brim over during weekly prayers in Jerusalem on Friday, some of Israel’s main newspaper commentators were sounding off about the Israeli government’s handling of a visit  by a US leader widely seen as among the best friends Israel has in Washington.

Maariv’s Ben Caspit wrote: “It was supposed to be a visit that would restore our trust. It was the visit that destroyed trust … Biden burned with anger …  Biden is our best friend in the American administration. And we do not have too many friends there. He was supposed to restart the process. To create, finally, a relationship of trust with Netanyahu. Instead, the moment he landed, he discovered a plan to construct sixteen hundred dwelling units in Ramat Shlomo … High-ranking American officials said this week that Israel was not behaving like an ally of the United States. There is no worse thing to say at such a critical time, when Iran is charging toward the last stretch on its way to the nuclear bomb. At this stage, At this stage, there should have been blind coordination between ourselves and them. Netanyahu should have been Obama’s best friend. A word is a word and a promise is a promise, and all the details of the operation to stop Iran’s progress toward the nuclear bomb, including the negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians (even in neutral) were supposed to be kept secret for the sake of calming things down on the ground and neutralizing ticking bombs. In reality? There is nothing. Only the broken glass of the souvenir that Bibi prepared for Biden and shattered with his own hands.”

Haaretz, voice of Israel’s centre-left, welcomed Biden’s stress on a need for progress: “In his speech at Tel Aviv University yesterday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden outlined the American approach to the Middle East in its broadest sense, from the Israeli-Arab conflict to the Persian Gulf.  This is President Barack Obama’s line … The American administration’s position is territories in exchange for peace, peace to ensure security and security to ensure the region’s stability and foil the Iranian nuclearization, which constitutes a ‘strategic threat to Israel’s survival.’  The position also supports a Jewish, democratic Israel alongside a Palestinian state, with the Green Line as its border, minus agreed territory exchanges. This means that if Israel wants to keep neighborhoods and settlements in exchange for other territory, Washington will understand, but on condition that the Palestinians agree to the deal. Biden pointed out the self-evident: To reach a deal, the sides must negotiate directly with each other. And if the corridor to the direct talks is indirect talks, as the Palestinian leaders demand, then this is the way it must be done. For Israel will not find better Palestinian leaders than Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. Thus the key is to eliminate reasons and excuses for avoiding indirect talks that lead to direct talks. One of these is the Israeli construction beyond the Green Line, whether in West Bank settlements or East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to express regret over the announcement of the building plans in Ramat Shlomo enabled Obama and Biden to tie Netanyahu’s hands. They leave him no option of implementing the declarative decisions. This week the Obama administration showed Netanyahu a yellow card. Next time, if Netanyahu takes that risk, whether with ill-intent or because one of his 30 ministers, a mayor or some clerk forgets to coordinate with him – the White House will brandish a red card … This was a support speech by an old friend, with whom the Israeli public can identify. Israel’s leaders should respond to his call.”

In some contrast, Shlomo Cezana and Matti Tuchfeld, writing in Israel Hayom, which generally supports Netanyahu and his right-leaning coalition, wrote: “Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem believe that the has crisis passed after US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel ended last night. Last night, the officials expressed fear that in the wake of the latest crisis over the construction permits in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, the US expected that Israel would not allow additional construction in East Jerusalem as long as talks with the Palestinians were taking place. The intention appears to be that no construction permits will be granted for the next four months, which fall within the time allotted for the conclusion of the indirect proximity talks … Officials close to Netanyahu expressed satisfaction with the positive note on which Biden’s visit ended. One high-ranking official said last night, ‘There is no change in policy. We’ll continue to build in Jerusalem.’”


While I understand the position that Netanyahu is in with this loosely held coalition, lets remember that it was his (or his advisers) choice to form this particular group. When the election was concluded, he had the option of forming a government with the moderate Kadima party, which would have been in full support of negotiations with the Palestinians. Benyi decided to coalesce with the far right and thus the current situation is of his own making. No longer does the court of public opinion lean towards Israel, and Benyi has no one to blame but himself.

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