Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and the West Bank was designed to underscore the Obama administration’s commitment to support Israeli security as it approaches indirect negotiations with the Palestinians.
But the jarring Israeli announcement that 1,600 Jewish homes would be constructed in east Jerusalem rattled the exercise, focusing attention on serious differences between the U.S. and Israel on key elements of any peace deal before the negotiations had even begun.
The spat embarrassed Biden, a close supporter of Israel, and prompted him to condemn the Israeli move, an exceptionally strong diplomatic criticism. On Thursday, in another speech in Jerusalem, he tried to smooth over the situation by extolling the countries’ close relationship.
“The Israeli bilateral relationship with the United States has just become much more difficult,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, after the housing announcement.
“It is hard to remember a time when a senior U.S. official used the word ‘condemn’ to describe the actions of any ally, let alone a close ally such as Israel, but that is precisely what the vice president did,” Malka said.
The Obama administration favors a broad Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank as part of a statehood deal and implies U.S. support for east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. But there are deep doubts in Israel that a treaty sharply reducing its territory would enhance the country’s security.
The housing announcement was generated by the Interior Ministry, headed by a hard-line opponent of negotiations over Jerusalem’s future.
But while internal politics is just beneath the surface, the issue of the city’s future is bound to take front and center at some point if serious peace talks get under way.
Biden’s aim was to inform Israel and its foes, including Iran, that Israel has solid security backing from the Obama administration.
But lots of space, approaching a chasm, was apparent when Biden told the Palestinians that the state they seek should be viable and contiguous – that is, without Israeli settlements in the way.
Biden’s remarks would seem to undercut any Israeli hopes of retaining some of the towns that have grown up on the West Bank amid the Palestinians – and more significantly Jewish housing in east Jerusalem.
The long and tortured history of U.S. mediation shows minds can be changed, though.
Under U.S. pressure at Camp David in 1977, for instance, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin yielded to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s demands for recovery of every inch of territory Egypt lost in the 1967 Six-Day War to secure a peace treaty.
And Sadat reconsidered his initial view that conditions were not yet right for full peace between the two countries and appropriately should be deferred to a later generation.
The very fact that a hardline Israeli leader and the president of Egypt were willing to negotiate peace terms itself was a remarkable turnabout.
This time around, there also are signs of compromise.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to the concept of a Palestinian state.
And Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to U.S. mediator George Mitchell’s plan for four months of shuttle diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians with only a partial and temporary halt to Israeli construction on the West Bank.
But Abbas is straightforward in what he wants, saying Israel’s plan for more housing in east Jerusalem threatens the negotiations before they get off the ground.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Barry Schweid has reported on Mideast diplomacy for The Associated Press since 1973.