A Twenty-Four Hour Long Rapprochement

A day after Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu smile together, Israel and the United States are at odds again.

At a time when President Barack Obama is busy meeting with foreign leaders on the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia, Vice President Joseph Biden has taken the initiative in meetings with other world leaders of great consequence to the United States. First and foremost is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who just wrapped up an address in New Orleans to the Jewish Federation of North America.

That address occurred on Monday, which was why Netanyahu traveled to the United States in the first place. But on the preceding Sunday, the prime minister briefly held a face-to-face meeting with Biden on issues that we can only assume were related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

You may recall that Biden and Netanyahu clashed only a few months ago in Jerusalem, when the Israeli government announced the construction of an additional 1,600 settlement blocs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That announcement prompted a sharp rebuke from Biden himself, who was in Israel at the time, as well as a series of angry phone calls from the White House over the following few days.

If that was considered a serious crisis in American-Israeli relations, you wouldn’t know it from the most recent Biden-Netanyahu meeting. Rather than the terse exchange between the two men earlier in the year, reporters witnessed a smiling Biden shaking hands with a smiling Netanyahu. But more important than any picture were the vice president’s warm words toward Israel as a reliable American ally:

  • The Obama Administration “represents an unbroken chain in American leaders who have understood this critical strategic relationship,” he said.
  • On American-Israeli relations, Biden promised not to “yield a single inch.”
  • Past differences, according to the vice president, were “tactical in nature, never fundamental.”
  • On Iran, he said that America is “absolutely committed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

From someone who was personally embarrassed in Israel only six months ago, Biden’s statements certainly represent a departure from his earlier remarks. The strength of the American-Israeli relationship is now apparently mended. In fact, Biden’s words suggest that the relationship has never been stronger.

But an improved American-Israeli relationship does nothing to reassure the Palestinians about the viability of the peace process. Indeed, such strong and overt support for Israel in the public domain may simply reinforce preexisting views among Palestinians about the United States. Foremost among these views is an America that is unwilling to give the Palestinians leeway on some of their demands.

Whether or not the United States is in fact an unfair interlocutor is beside the point. Just the perception of being unfair is enormously harmful to a progressive US-Palestine relationship. There is already an immense trust deficit among the Palestinian population as to Washington’s sincerity for a sustainable agreement. Spouting unconditional support for Israel (even if this is official American policy) will not do anything to suppress that gap in trust, nor will it provide Mahmoud Abbas with the political cover he needs to continue with a process that the Arab World views as a waste of time.

Through his public remarks, Biden may have been attempting to reassure skeptical Israelis that the United States is still a friend after a rough diplomatic year. Within this context, he probably achieved the objective. Yet at a time when the Obama Administration is trying its hardest to rescue direct talks from complete annihilation, this small bout of public diplomacy could have further jeopardized an environment that was a failure to begin with.

But just when we think that everything is back to normal, Prime Minister Netanyahu announces yet another expansion of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. President Obama responded to this announcement in Jakarta by saying that the move was “unhelpful” for negotiations. In a bold pronouncement, Netanyahu lashed back, saying that Jerusalem will forever be the Israeli capital. Apparently, the Biden-Netanyahu rapprochement did not last long.