The Middle East Channel

Biden, Netanyahu, and papering over the Grand Canyon

It took a little over 24 hours, but in the end a version of events was agreed on that allowed for the resumption of something resembling business as usual in Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu had not known about the planning approval of 1600 housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem - this was all terribly embarrassing, Israel was sincerely sorry for the unpleasantness caused, and the minister directly responsible displayed appropriate contrition. You see, the relevant district planning committee in Jerusalem had its timing wrong, completing the approval process would anyway take several more months, and actual building on the ground would only happen some time in the distant future.

A technical solution was even invented for preventing such shenanigans from happening again - from now on, the Israeli prime minister himself would oversee sensitive planning and building authorizations and announcements. It's just the kind of pragmatic and sensible solution that America could expect from that reasonable oasis of democracy in the region, Israel. Phew. The deepening chasm that separates the interests of Israel and America's governments could be papered over once again.

The Middle East, like anywhere, loves a good conspiracy theory - and conspiracies there often contain a degree of veracity lacking in the American truther/birther variation. There were at least four competing conspiratorial versions of the events that unfolded in the last 48 hours: (1) This was all about domestic Israeli political turf battles - one-upmanship within the leadership of the orthodox Shas party, between Shas and other parties, and the ubiquitous settler presence in bureaucracy setting down another marker. (2) Look broader to the regional big picture - this has everything to do with Iran and setting priorities. Israel has created an equation whereby the U.S. is so concerned about Israel going rogue on Iran in irresponsible ways that the U.S. would not open a second serious front of confrontation with Netanyahu's government over settlements - hence the administration's climb-down from its call for a comprehensive settlement freeze last year and the acceptance of a weak compromise, especially on east Jerusalem which paved the way for this week's debacle.

(3) We were witnessing American domestic politics being played out in Jerusalem. The links between Likud/settler Israel and the American right have become particularly tight over the last decade or more. This episode therefore was an attempt by some within the pro-GOP wing of Israeli officialdom to embarrass the VP and Obama administration. After all, there has been a concerted and often coordinated anti-Obama campaign inside Israel and within the American Jewish community from day one.  (4) Finally, perhaps this has everything to do with Benjamin Netanyahu's personal history with U.S. presidents. During his first term of office in the late 1990's, Netanyahu lost his coalition and his job after clashing with then President Clinton and being cornered into signing the Wye River Memorandum in late 1998. Understandably, Netanyahu is keen to avoid a repeat performance. One option would be to make nice with President Obama by demonstrating real flexibility on the peace front, but that is both tricky in domestic coalition terms and perhaps not in Netanyahu's own political DNA. So the other alternative is to ensure that the Obama administration never has sufficient trust or traction within Israel to speak over the prime minister's head directly to his public (after all, Obama is a new and unknown quantity and his middle name is Hussein, while Bill Clinton already had great credibility and ratings with Israelis by the time Netanyahu entered office in 1996). The goal in this context would be to turn Biden's visit from a love-fest into a pissing match, neutralizing Administration efforts to start afresh with Israel's public.

Any or all of the above could have a plausible connection to this week's developments, but the official explanation that ultimately carried the day-the unfortunate bureaucratic hiccup one-is probably closest to the truth. It may be less sexy than what the conspiratorial menu had to offer, but this explanation is almost certainly the most damning of all in its implications for U.S.-Israeli relations and policies.

America and Israel are largely talking past each other, and either the U.S. just doesn't get it and fails to understand the dynamics at work in Israel or it has convinced itself that for its own political reasons it is unable to act in anything approaching a decisive manner. Both may be correct. Neither bode well for the future.

Biden's decision to stick to the existing charm offensive script in his Tel Aviv speech while adding a small dose of home truths about the need for peace was probably a wise choice on this occasion. His rhetorical criticism of the settlement announcement was not significantly different from statements by the many senior U.S. officials embarrassed during Israel visits by settlement misbehavior in the past. The last time an American president declared settlements illegal was under President Carter, and the last time consequences were created for settlement misdemeanors was under President George H.W. Bush. Those happened about thirty and twenty years ago, respectively.

Understanding the Israeli reality is crucial to charting a smart policy as Sen. Mitchell seeks to advance peace negotiations. The Obama administration would hardly be alone in failing to appreciate the deep and structural dynamics that are in play in Israel. Many very smart Israeli analysts, commentators, and practitioners are in denial themselves (for example, Amos Harel here, putting this latest spat down to incompetence). It is all too easy to blame the Shas minister directly responsible, Eli Yishai, or Netanyahu's poor management, or coalition intrigues.

Of all the words Israeli officials have uttered in walking back this episode, one has been conspicuously missing - that it was "wrong".  Netanyahu is reported to have said the following in yesterday's cabinet meeting, "Approving that plan when the vice president of the United States is visiting here is first-rate insensitivity... We will continue to build in Jerusalem." Aye, there's the rub.

Today's Israeli press is full of stories of future settlement expansion in East Jerusalem - 7000 units according to Yedioth, 50,000 if the (probably exaggerated) Ha'aretz numbers are to be believed. Israel does not view East Jerusalem as occupied or any different from Tel Aviv, and it does not view West Bank settlements as illegal or illegitimate (the Obama administration has used the latter word, and in line with all previous administrations since '67 and in line with the rest of the world does not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem).

Under the U.N. partition plan of 1947, a Jewish national home was to be accorded 55% of Mandatory Palestine. After its war of independence, Israel was in possession of 78% of that territory. Many in Israel apparently see no reason why 78% cannot become 80% or 85% or 100%. The pragmatic, state-building and solidifying variety of Zionism is now in a life or death struggle with its maximalist, expansionist and sometimes messianic twin brother, and the latter is winning almost without breaking sweat.

After nearly 40 years of occupation and settlements beyond the green line, settler Zionism and its sympathizers are deeply embedded across all the relevant bureaucracies of the government and security establishments. That is what's made the existence of 500,000 Israelis living over the '67 lines possible and that's what was behind this new episode. If the U.S. looks at this week's events and sees an essentially rational ship of state having indulged in a little ill-timed irrational exuberance - sloppy management, understandable coalition politics - then it is fundamentally misreading the situation. There is a powerful, structural logic to what happened this week and one that will not be reversed until the 1967 occupation has ended by creating a Palestinian state and an Israeli-Palestinian border demarcation whereby pragmatic Zionism finally confronts settler Zionism.

Some would argue that Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005 proves the opposite - that pragmatic Zionism has the upper hand and that left to its own devices, rational Israel can still make the right choice. But even when they were at loggerheads, Sharon allowed the settler movement to further entrench itself in the West Bank, and in the five years that have elapsed since disengagement, the overriding lesson seems to be that there will be no repeat of Gaza in Judea and Samaria. It was too costly, the results unedifying (perhaps by design), settlements proceed apace and even the separation barrier has failed to create a new de-occupation momentum.

Perhaps the Obama administration does get it. Biden did say in his Tel Aviv speech today, "...quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Perhaps America will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for recalcitrance. Thus far, that has not been the case. The U.S. backed down (again) over settlements last year and the suspicion of course exists that domestic political considerations continue to constrain an American president's freedom of action when it comes to securing an Israeli-Palestinian deal.

Israel is unlikely to make a choice until the U.S. makes its own choice, and this week demonstrated that papering over the chasm now existing between U.S. and Israeli positions is an ever-more transparently flawed exercise. America may only be paying attention when the vice president is in town, but the Arab and Muslim world views America as the enabler-in-chief of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and of the indignities being visited on Gaza's civilian population, every single day.

In the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of hope for pragmatic Zionism. And America too will not emerge unscathed. The president can give any number of Cairo speeches and appoint Sen. Mitchell as special peace envoy, Sec. Clinton can appoint Farah Pandit as representative to Muslim communities and Rashad Hussain as envoy to the O.I.C., but these officials had all better be given the cellphone number of the Israeli interior ministry, Jerusalem district planning and building department, because that office and others in Israel's bureaucracy still have the deciding vote in framing America's image in the region.

Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.

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