Tuesday night, March 9, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu told visiting US Vice President Joe Biden that the Interior Ministry district building commission's announcement clearing the addition of 1,600 homes to the existing East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo had been made without his knowledge. It would take another two years of paperwork for building to begin.
The announcement drew sharp condemnation from the White House in Washington and from Biden, who arrived late for dinner with the prime minister, after condemning the "substance and timing" of the announcement with the launching of proximity talks. This, he said "undermined the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions I've had here in Israel." The announcement was roundly condemned by the UN Secretary, Egypt and Jordan, as well as Israeli opposition leaders.
Israeli officials later assured Washington there had been no intention to undermine the Biden visit, but Netanyahu took no steps to reverse the decision made by ultra-Orthodox, hard-line Shas interior minister Ellie Yishai.
According to debkafile's sources, the sweetness and light conveyed by public statements was hardly present in the US vice president's private talks with Israeli leaders. Netanyahu may well have approved the Jerusalem announcement as an indirect comeback for the way the American visitor laid down the law on a number of issues of Israeli concern, chiefly the matter of Iran's rapid progress toward a nuclear weapon.
The peremptory note was first noted when Biden called on president Shimon Peres, his first meeting with an Israel leader. He then explicitly warned Israel against venturing to attack Iran without prior American permission.
Even the oft-repeated American commitment to Israel's security was delivered with a notable reservation: I can promise the people of Israel that we will confront every security challenge that we will face, said Biden. This statement ruled out unilateral Israel operations in its defense. Forget unilateral, he was saying: From now "we" make the decisions about the levels of "security challenge" facing Israel and how to "confront it." And there was no false modestly about who the senior decision-maker was to be in this "alliance."
Jerusalem was also taken aback by the US vice president's assertion that Iran was isolated as never before. A distorting prism appeared to be held up by the Obama administration to justify its backtracking on painful sanctions for Iran. These sanctions were explicitly promised by the White House to Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak in return for Israel's consent to hold back from striking Iran's nuclear facilities.
The Biden visit to Israel, therefore, far from meeting its avowed goal of smoothing over the differences between the Obama administration and Israel, has left Jerusalem more distrustful than ever.
The climate was not improved Monday, March 8, by Yukiya Amano, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, announcing that the IAEA board would get back to discussing Iran's nuclear program and making decisions only in five months' time. In other words, the UN Security Council would not have the nuclear watchdog's recommendations for supporting a sanctions resolution before July.
Israel attributed this delay to Washington's intervention as another gambit for shunting Israel and its demands for harsh sanctions aside, while also holding its hand against exercising any military options.
Approval for the expansion of Ramat Shlomo came on the heels of a tough new statement by defense minister Barak Tuesday. In a talk to students, he warned that when it came to Iran, Israel must keep its finger on the trigger at all times. And upon arrival in the United States this week, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi was instructed from Jerusalem to talk tough on the Iranian question when he meets Pentagon officials in the coming days.