Vice President Joe Biden went to Israel this week with roses in his hands but ended up getting pricked by the thorns.
The purpose of Biden’s trip was to stress the U.S. friendship and his personal support of the Jewish state. He was also there to assure Israel that it should move ahead with the indirect peace talks to which the Palestinians had agreed.
However, on March 10, the Cairo-based Arab League, which only last week had endorsed those talks, withdrew its support. Arab League chief Amr Moussa said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told him he would not enter indirect talks with Israel, according to new reports.
The unraveling began within 24 hours of Biden landing in Israel March 8. The next day, he learned that the Jerusalem District Planning Committee had authorized the construction of 1,600 apartments in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood north of downtown Jerusalem. While Israel has annexed East Jerusalem, the Palestinians have claimed it as a capital of their city.
An embarrassed Biden didn’t hold back his anger over the March 9 disclosure.
“The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now,” Biden said.
He also expressed his anger with a diplomatic slap at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Biden and his wife, Jill, pointedly arrived 90 minutes late to a scheduled dinner with the Netanyahus on March 10.
A flustered Netanyahu let it be known through spokesman that he was caught off guard by the announced housing construction. The next morning, in fact, Israel formally apologized, but some felt it was only half-hearted. The apology pointedly said the decision to build the housing would not be reversed. It also said the timing of the announcement was unfortunate.
But the damage was done. A headline on the front page of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz read, “A slap heard round the world.”
Israel’s opposition Kadima Party said it is planning a no-confidence vote for the prime minister in parliament for “destroying” the Biden visit.
Biden clearly wasn’t satisfied with Israel’s apology. At a press conference March 10 in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Abbas, the vice president reiterated his condemnation of Israel’s plan.
“It is incumbent on both parties to build an atmosphere of support for negotiations and not to complicate them,” Biden told reporters.
The ongoing construction is also eroding domestic support for Abbas and his policy of trying to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel.
The Arab League’s peace initiative committee’s decision to advise against entering the talks due to the announcements of new settlement building in East Jerusalem was only a recommendation — and a final decision will have to be made by the foreign ministers of the Arab nations.
“In case of the failure to stop the Israeli measures immediately … the committee concludes that the proposed talks are irrelevant,” the committee’s statement said, calling for a convening of foreign ministers to reconsider their support.
Moussa, the Arab League chief, told a news conference following an urgent meeting of Arab delegates that “the Palestinian president decided he will not enter into those negotiations now … the Palestinian side is not ready to negotiate under the present circumstances.”
Earlier during Biden’s visit, Abbas had said that “the Palestinians remain committed to peace as a strategic choice.”
France denounced the construction, deeming it “illegal” according to international law. The construction plan also drew a sharp rebuke from Egypt, Israel’s closest ally in the Arab world, and from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“This is absurd. It is disdainful of the Arab and the Palestinian positions and the American mediation,” said Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
The Palestinians, who had called for a settlement freeze as a condition for resuming talks suspended since December 2008, had agreed this week to indirect negotiations with Israel under U.S. mediation — but no date, venue or agenda had been set. Mideast envoy George Mitchell had planned to shuttle between Abbas and Netanyahu in coming months.
Netanyahu ordered a 10-month halt to new housing starts in West Bank settlements in November, but he exempted projects in Jerusalem, namely the eastern sector of the city that Israel captured in 1967.
President Barack Obama initially called for a complete settlement freeze, but did not take Israel to task when it agreed only to a 10-month moratorium on housing starts in the West Bank.
Biden’s trip to the region was the highest-level visit from a member of Obama’s team since the president took office. The vice president’s first official remarks during his visit came at a March 9 press conference in which he told Netanyahu, “The United States will always stand with those who take risks for peace.”
The vice president also offered assurances that the United States remained committed to Israel’s well-being, speaking of the administration’s “total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
Iran appeared to loom large in Biden’s discussions with Netanyahu, and in the joint appearance with the Israeli leader Biden said: “We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
Israel has been pushing for stricter international sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, and has refused to rule out a military strike if sanctions fail.
The press conference included warm banter between the two men and ended with Netanyahu telling Biden that trees had been planted outside Jerusalem in honor of the vice president’s late mother. “My love for your country was watered by that Irish lady,” Biden responded.
Some observers called this initial meeting a love fest. Little did they know that the love fest would soon turn sour.
JTA, the Jerusalem Post and the Associated Press contributed to this report.