The crisis in US-Israeli relations took a sharp turn for the worse Friday night, March 12, with a phone call from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the relationship was at risk unless Israel toed the administration's line in renewed talks with the Palestinians. Israel must take immediate steps to demonstrate it was interested in renewing efforts for a Middle East agreement, he was told – a reference to sweeping concessions, including halting construction in Jerusalem.
It was the sudden announcement of an added 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo in the middle of Vice President Joe Biden's visit which tipped the already tense relations into this crisis. Netanyahu told Biden it had come about without his knowledge.
Two days after Biden condemned the announcement, Clinton delivered a tough message, saying Washington considered the announcement "a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president's trip."
She said she could not understand how this happened,"particularly in light of the US strong commitment to Israel's security."
debkafile: The administration is clearly taking advantage of the weakness Netanyahu projected during the Biden visit to swallow its Iran policy, over which Israel feels it has been jilted, as well as its Palestinian policy.
Our exclusive analysis earlier detailed some of the steps, including those of the visiting US Vice President, which exacerbated the misunderstandings between Jerusalem and Washington, as follows:
The fallout from the US Vice President Joe Biden's 48 hours in Israel undid a year of effort by the Netanyahu government to build a foreign policy and an understanding with Washington as the bedrock of a coordinated proactive policy on Iran, debkafile's exclusive sources report. Instead of ironing out misunderstandings which have marred relations, the visitor struck out on his own as America's would-be Middle East policy overlord. Under the unrelenting pressure of the visit and its mishaps, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his closest ally, defense minister Ehud Barak, almost came to blows.
The announcement approving 1,600 new homes for the existing East Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo popped out at a particularly unfortunate moment. It may have been meant to mark Israeli resentment over Washington's ineffectual handling of the Iranian nuclear drive. Instead, the announcement hit the Israeli prime minister in the face and gave Biden a large whip for beating the Israeli government down.
He was not the only one. Barak, leader of Labor, the senior partner in Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition, ran alongside Biden, both using the Jerusalem housing announcement to intimidate, punish and bend the prime minister to their will over the Jerusalem housing mishap.
Barak accused Netanyahu of recklessly causing irreparable damage to relations with the Obama administration and wrecking the diplomatic basis for a military strike against Iran's nuclear industry.
The breakdown of the partnership which has dominated Israeli policy-making in the past year is of consequence not only for domestic political equilibrium, but also for the Netanyahu government's world standing
Sources close to these events told debkafile that the prime minister came close to cracking under Barak's onslaught, losing his cool and acting jumpy and confused. He could have calmly ordered the suspension of the 1,600 housing approvals for the four months allotted negotiations with the Palestinians – as he did for an ambitious scheme announced by Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat for Silwan, shortly before Biden's arrival.
He refrained from this step for two reasons:
First, he could not afford to be seen folding under pressure to halt new construction in Jerusalem, although implementation of this particular scheme was at least two years away.
Second, he could not be sure the Interior Minister, ultra-Orthodox Shas leader Ellie Yishai – who holds jurisdiction over the planning commission – would not disobey him and throw the government into crisis. Netanyahu would be finished in his Likud party and much of the country if he lost his government by interrupting construction in Jerusalem, a highly sensitive issue
Caught on the horns of this dilemma, the prime minister hesitated too long, giving the Palestinians a chance to cash in on the accelerating crisis and lay down fresh terms for resuming peace talks. Finally, he decided to pacify the American leader and the defense minister by creating a new mechanism to prejudge all building permits for Jerusalem before they were processed.
By slowing down planning permission for construction, this device will have the effect of extending the West Bank building freeze to Jerusalem as well. Netanyahu has shown himself to be easy prey for pressure-wielders.
The maelstrom centering the prime minister obscured the fault-lines in the Obama administration shown up by Biden's handling of his Middle East trip.
He came to the region with three missions: to sweeten US-Israeli relations, celebrate the launching of indirect Israel-Palestinian peace talks and underscore the commonality of US-Israeli purpose on Iran.
In the event, Biden fell down on all three counts, launching instead an independent Middle East posture at odds with the White House's avowed policies.
This deviation was expressed in five ways:
1. He hardly ever mentioned Barack Obama in any of his political appearances, preferring to say "we" – in other words, America, which he represented in his visit.
2. While affirming American friendship for Israel and concern for its security, Biden's recurring theme was this: "I can promise the people in Israel that we will confront as allies every security challenge that we will face."
Here, too, "we" – meaning the United States – would define the security challenge and decide how to confront it, an attitude which was deeply resented in Jerusalem.
3. At his lecture to Tel Aviv University Thursday, March 11, before his departure, Biden said: "The United States is resolved to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon" – a general statement with no commitment.
Until then, he had shunned any mention of Iran at all, but members of his party leaked word that he was leaning hard on Israel to prevent its resort to military action against Iran's nuclear projects, without however offering any commitment on painful sanctions.
Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf neighbors got wind of the slugging-match over Iran in Jerusalem and were alarmed enough to demand clarifications from Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was sent post haste from Kabul to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with assurances that the Obama administration had not abandoned the road to a showdown with Iran, whether economic or military.
4. The Biden party did not include Middle East envoy George Mitchell, but he did bring Dennis Ross along.
This seemed almost natural in view of Ross's standing in the National Security Council as an expert on Iran.
However, given his long experience in Israeli and Palestinian affairs, the Vice President appeared to have chosen him as his senior adviser for the visit and sidelined presidential envoy Mitchell – yet another significant departure from the policy direction taken by the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
5. And finally, instead of smoothing ruffled feathers in Jerusalem with interviews to the host media, Vice President Biden snubbed them all and granted the only interview of his trip to the Arabic Al Jazeera TV, whose news content is sharply slanted against Israel, US military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Western war on terror.
By signing off his Israel visit with an Al Jazeera interview, Joe Biden made it perfectly clear exactly how he feels about the Jewish state.