Relations between the United States and Israeli administrations have been tense
for the past year. When US Vice President Joe Biden landed in Israel on Monday,
seeking to avert a probable Israeli strike on Iran and to formally restart the
peace talks with the Palestinians, he was likely prepared for some difficult
His reception, however, caught him off-guard, as it did the entire
international community. "A slap in the face" and "humiliation" for him are
some of the phrases observers used to describe the plan for the construction of
1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem that was unveiled on Tuesday shortly
before Biden was to have dinner with the family of Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. Attesting to his shock, Biden was 90 minutes late
following the announcement.
The construction plan drew immediate and sharp condemnation from the
international community, including from the United Nations, the European Union,
the Arab League and Biden himself. The Palestinians, who were never too keen to
negotiate, announced that the talks would remain frozen until the plan was
revoked. "We want to hear from [United States envoy George] Mitchell that
Israel has cancelled the decision to build housing units before we start the
negotiations," Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said on
Once the initial surprise was over, Biden was left with the unenviable task of
swallowing his pride and accepting (at least formally) Netanyahu's excuse that
he had been blindsided by his Interior Minister Elie Yishai (whose office
issued the announcement). He also had to try and persuade the Palestinians that
"the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely
take several years".
There are two main explanations for this unexpected crisis, as well as a number
of ramifications and twists. On the one hand, it is possible that a hiccup
occurred inside the complicated Israeli bureaucracy - or even that Yishai,
leader of the conservative ultra-orthodox party Shas and Netanyahu's junior
coalition partner, used the opportunity to boost his position at the expense of
the prime minister.
"Yishai faces fierce competition from within his party, but unlike Netanyahu,
the interior minister can afford some criticism from Washington," writes Amos
Harel. "Actually, it might even help him among his voters."  It bears
mentioning that the proposed new homes are meant primarily for ultra-orthodox
Jews who are Yishai's constituency.
Such an explanation would suggest staggering rifts within the Israeli
bureaucracy, or, as the Jerusalem Post put it, "a dysfunctional government". It
would be further supported by Netanyahu's reprimand of Yishai (the prime
minister used the words "wretched, displaced and insensitive" to describe the
timing of the decision) as well as by precedents such as Deputy Foreign
Minister Danny Ayalon's treatment of the Turkish ambassador in January (for
which Ayalon was forced to apologize) . However, given the broader
circumstances of the spat, this is the less likely version of the events.
Israeli leaders - including Netanyahu and Yishai (the latter also denied
personal responsibility for the statement) - made a point of condemning the
timing of the announcement, but not the construction plan itself. Netanyahu did
not take any steps to reverse the decision; on the contrary, late on Thursday
night his government approved a right-wing march through East Jerusalem.
Moreover, a few hours prior to Biden's arrival, the Defense Ministry approved
the building of 112 additional homes in the settlement of Beitar Illit, where
work had previously been suspended in accordance with the 10-month settlement
construction halt announced in November. Legally, this constituted an even
graver provocation than the building in East Jerusalem.
All these events, coming in close succession, cannot be explained away as
coincidences or bureaucratic hiccups. Contrasted with United States President
Barack Obama's oft-professed commitment to the peace process and the repeated
calls for restraint coming from his administration, such steps amount to
nothing other than a direct insult - all the more biting since they were
wrapped in the full gamut of diplomatic civilities.
The question remains: why would Israeli leaders go out of their way to
embarrass the American administration?
There is the Palestinian claim that Netanyahu simply aims to sabotage Obama's
peace effort; it may have something to do with the answer, but it doesn't
appear to be a satisfactory explanation. Few if any observers ever believed
that much would come out of the current initiative; if Netanyahu wanted to
bring about its demise, he would surely find a subtler way to do so than to
spit in the face of Israel's closest ally.
We should not forget that 10 years ago, the Palestinians walked out on an offer
that was more generous than anything they are likely to receive this time
around. Netanyahu knows that well. He may or may not be serious about peace,
but he is not so inexperienced as to take the blame for the failure of
negotiations when he can count on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
to do that for him.
That leaves us again with a second option, as well as with the realization that
the peace process is likely not a central consideration for the Israelis or the
Americans. "Mitchell's absence from the [Biden-Netanyahu] meetings indicate
Palestinian talks don't top agenda," noted the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. Biden
arrived in Israel on the heels of a number of top US officials (he's the third
and highest-ranking such official to visit in as many weeks), and according to
most analysts his primary purpose is to coordinate action on Iran.
One of his first speeches on his arrival in Israel emphasized America's
"absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security". In his final
Tel Aviv address on Thursday, and perhaps as an attempt to reassure
unequivocally his hosts, he stressed that "the United States is determined to
prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period".
The recent developments on the Iranian nuclear intrigue could shed light on the
developments surrounding Biden's visit. There are numerous indications that
Israel is losing patience with Obama's policy of restraint. The Americans first
set the end of 2009 as a deadline for the diplomatic process, then postponed
until the end of February this year, and last week Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton suggested that sanctions may be "months away".
On Monday, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya
Amano, also suggested that it would take months before the agency provided
recommendations on Iran to the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, perhaps
encouraged by the US pressure on Israel and in an apparent attempt to tout the
Jewish state, Iran transferred almost its entire stash of low-enriched uranium
above ground, where it could easily be destroyed from the air.
To Netanyahu, who has repeatedly promised to stop the Iranian nuclear program,
which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes, this constitutes more than a
personal challenge. The concept of deterrence holds a central place in Israel's
military doctrine and, from an Israeli point of view, inaction in the face of
such touting threatens to erode the foundations of Israeli security. "At the
very minimum," writes Ha'aretz Israeli analyst, Avigdor Haselkorn, "Israel
could face new attacks from the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. At worst, the
likelihood of a full-scale war would increase dramatically."
This leaves us with a final set of two options. On the one hand, if the US is
truly adamant - as appears to be the case - in its pressure on Israel to hold
back from a strike, Netanyahu most likely sees that as both a personal insult
and a grave existential threat to Israel. In this context, his message to Biden
could be interpreted as a stern warning that he means business with his threats
to attack, and that the US has more to lose than to gain by twisting his arms.
On the other hand, there exists the possibility that the whole thing is a
masquerade designed to divert attention from an impending joint US-Israeli
strike on Iran. Obama is unlikely to be comfortable with such a decision, but a
number of analysts have argued that in the end, he might not have much of a
choice. It is just about clear that diplomacy or sanctions won't stop the
Iranian nuclear program; moreover, it is not just Israel that feels threatened
On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia urgently summoned US Defense Secretary Robert Gates
for clarifications on the Iranian problem, and on Sunday US Central Command
chief General David Petraeus shared with CNN that "... there are countries [in
the Gulf] that would like to see a strike [on Iran], us or perhaps Israel, even
This is the clearest indication yet of the pressure the US is facing from its
crucial Arab allies in the Middle East, and it bears noting that Egypt, too, is
firmly opposed to the Iranian regime and its nuclear program. It may well be
that the American administration is faced with the choice to take action
against Iran or to see its entire Middle East policy disintegrate.