Israel's Snub of Biden: More Than Just Bad Timing

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Debbie Hill / AP

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, at a press conference at the residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010

Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, apologized on Wednesday for "the distress caused" by his ministry's announcement on Tuesday that Israel would build 1,600 new homes for its settlers in East Jerusalem. The distress of which he spoke was caused to the person of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who had spent the day assuring Israel of America's unconditional support and talking up the prospects of a renewed peace effort that would involve "indirect" negotiations, with U.S. special envoy George Mitchell shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Having been publicly humiliated by the Israeli announcement — the U.S. government opposes Israeli construction on territory captured in the war of 1967, and the Palestinians seized on Tuesday's announcement as evidence to back its claim that the Israelis don't plan to negotiate in good faith — Biden made no secret of his pique. He reportedly kept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting for 90 minutes before arriving at a scheduled dinner (a harsh slap-down in the vocabulary of diplomatic protocol) and issued a stern statement condemning the planned construction and accusing Israel of "undermining the trust we need right now" to relaunch peace talks.

Yishai's apology, though, was simply about the timing of an announcement by his bureaucratic subordinates that, he said, didn't even require ministerial approval, since the Netanyahu government's slowdown of settlement construction does not apply to East Jerusalem. "If I'd have known," said Yishai, "I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two, since we had no intention of provoking anyone."

And therein lies the rub: the Netanyahu government has no intention of halting settlement construction in East Jerusalem (which it considers to be part of Israel, though its claim to the part of the city captured in 1967 is not internationally recognized), much less agreeing to share the city designated by the Palestinians as their future capital. No Palestinian or Arab leader is politically able to accept any peace agreement that leaves all of the Holy City in Israeli hands. Netanyahu continues to insist that Israel's control over those parts of Jerusalem captured in 1967 is non-negotiable, despite the fate of the city having long been designated as a key "final status" issue in the peace process.

It's not clear how the issue will be handled in Mitchell's shuttle diplomacy, whose parameters and terms of reference have not been disclosed — if, indeed, they have even been finalized. So while Israel may try to avoid publicly humiliating its friends in Washington, it remains equally committed to expanding its grip on East Jerusalem.

Biden, speaking on Tuesday before the Jerusalem announcement, said that "progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel." The Jerusalem announcement, however, revealed that there is in fact substantial space between Israel's position and that of the U.S. And the issue is not simply the timing of the announcement, but also the substantive actions that Israel plans to take in East Jerusalem. So while Biden on Wednesday reiterated that achieving peace will require the Israelis and Palestinians to take "historically bold" steps, the contretemps over Jerusalem is a reminder that the Obama Administration faces tough choices if it hopes to bring an end to the Middle East's longest-running conflict.