Last week, United States Vice President Joseph Biden visited Israel on a
goodwill mission to regain the trust lost during last year's attempt by the
Barack Obama administration to strong-arm Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
new government into a "comprehensive settlement freeze" in the West Bank and
East Jerusalem. Biden began his rounds first with Israeli President Shimon
Peres at the official residence.
The message Biden wrote in the guest book, "The bond between our two nations
has been and will remain unshakable. Only together can we achieve lasting peace
in the region," struck a fine chord. This was followed with an equally
conciliatory remark by the vice president, "There is absolutely no space
United States and Israel when it comes to Israel's security - none at all."
Then, a bomb was dropped in the form of an announcement by Netanyahu's Interior
Ministry of the decision that the Jerusalem District Planning and Building
Committee was to move ahead with preliminary permission for the constructions
of 1,600 units of housing in the Ramat Shlomo section of east Jerusalem. The
Netanyahu government maintains that Ramat Shlomo section is well within the
area of Jerusalem the Israelis intend to keep. This was said by Netanyahu to be
understood by the Palestinian Authority (PA) as part of the various run ups to
"final-status" talks over the years.
The real issue here is the timing of the announcement, which impacted Biden
while he was making his high-profile way across the Holy Land. The vice
president's initial response was to condemn "the substance and timing of the
announcement" ruing that, "unilateral action taken by either party cannot
prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues".
To be sure, the accompanying uproar made for some unease when Biden met with PA
President Mahmoud Abbas and company to discuss moving the "indirect" peace
talks forward a couple of squares.
Before going forward, a look back provided by the New York Times editorial
"Diplomacy 102" explains in part how the US/Israeli relationship has
deteriorated to this point. "President Obama seriously miscalculated last year
when he insisted that Israel impose a full stop on all new settlement building,
only to have Mr Netanyahu refuse." While noting the inherent positives of a
comprehensive settlement freeze that would reassure the PA and push the
Israelis to "serious negotiations", the Times scolded: "But one of the basic
rules of diplomacy is that American presidents never publicly insist on
something they aren't sure of getting - at least not without a backup plan."
If rule one of the lawyer's code is to get paid, rule two is never asking a
question you don't know the answer to in open court. There are lots of lawyers
in any US administration, but this is especially true in Democratic
governments. Two right off the top in the foreign policy shop are Obama and
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Actually, the Obama team misjudged the temperature of the Israeli people, as it
has with American public opinion on "reforming" healthcare. After the Gaza War
during the winter of 2008-2009 there was no majority of Israelis in any hurry
to begin peace talks with the PA that could lead to Gaza II in the West Bank
and East Jerusalem. Hence, Netanyahu, after some initial scrambling was able to
wear down what was Obama's first-year attack on his premiership.
To the extent there is any residual bad blood in the Netanyahu government, it
Last Thursday, Biden gave a speech at Tel Aviv University, imparting "that the
US has no better friend than Israel", yet "The status quo is untenable.
Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth.'' The vice president
then added, "But because that decision, in my view, undermined the trust
required for productive negotiations, I, at the request of President Obama
condemned it immediately and unequivocally," Biden said.
Strong words portending more response from the Obama administration later. The
talk did end on a positive note. "The United States is determined to prevent
Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons period," said the vice president.
When Biden was wheels-up for Jordan, Netanyahu thought he could breathe a bit
easier as the storm had passed. This was not to be.
On Friday, Secretary of State "Iran is at the top of my agenda" Clinton
speaking directly for the president found the prime minister on her rolodex and
proceeded to unload on him for 43 minutes beginning with words like "affront
and insult" in giving her version of the classic Lyndon B Johnson dress down.
That Netanyahu did not interrupt Clinton's harangue to say, "Hey, I'm not your
husband," is why there are billions of people on this planet and so few
Let's stop here, and recognize the following: the show last week in Israel is
about Iran and this show is the second part of a binary plan to impress the
Chinese, who obviously do not believe the Israelis will, like Osirak (a 1981
surprise Israeli air strike that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor) and the
September 2007 strike on the North Korean-supplied Syrian reactor, do what is
necessary to stop Iran's nuclear program. This time to get to Iran, the
Israelis may well at some point put US forces in the Persian Gulf or in Iraq in
danger if there is any indirect blowback from Iran.
The first part of this equation unfolded in early March with an elite soldier
in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) placing on Facebook the operational details
of a raid into the West Bank the day before the operation. This soldier's
Facebook friends in the army told command of this serious breach in security
and the soldier in question was drummed out of his elite unit and then given 10
days in the stockade to think about his actions. The IDF also "unfriended" the
soldier, but what does that mean exactly, walking around the Sinai alone for 40
years, a more apt punishment than 10 days in the stockade.
The circumstances behind this highly publicized story are a bit over the top
which, of course, is the tip off. The true message here from the IDF after some
study reveals that if the Israelis tell even one friendly contact at the
Pentagon or Central Intelligence Agency they will fly to Tehran, word will be
all over Washington and in the Oval Office by daybreak, possibly voiding what
must be a highly intricate flight plan.
Message to the Chinese: we are not calling Washington when it's time to fly to
targets in Iran that Israel considers to be a part of the existential threat.
In late January, speaking before the Ecole Militaire students at the French war
college, Clinton said, "China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the
destabilizing effect that a nuclear-armed Iran would have" in the Persian Gulf,
"from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supply."
The message in the US context is there could very well be destabilizing effects
in the Persian Gulf well before Iran gains a nuclear weapon and the US might
never know ahead of time. Such a conflagration brought on by an Israeli strike
includes attacks possible by Hamas, Hezbollah and even Syria as well as any
fighting touched off in the Persian Gulf.
In short, any of this is bad for the Chinese economy dependent on generating 30
million new jobs a year. In China, working people don't place much store in
politics. If these working folks are suddenly out of work, well that's an
equation the leaders of the Middle Kingdom do not care to ponder.
The US and other trading allies are at present at loggerheads with China as to
the undervaluation of the yuan. Then there's Google's fight against Chinese
censorship that Clinton has personally addressed. Then there's the flap over US
arms to Taiwan. There are many foreign policy balls to juggle and get right in
The Ramat Shlomo bomb dropped last week on Biden was also symbolic. The push
here is the Israelis will do what they think they have to do even if it means
embarrassing - or worse - their strongest ally. Chinese hospitality on the
other hand is to make some pronouncements through various sources before a US
state visit to shape the talks, but seldom to embarrass a US principle during
such a stop.
A side effect of the Israeli "policy" is Arab leaders who had been complaining
that nothing was happening in the Holy Land got what they wanted when Clinton,
Biden and even domestic advisor David Axelrod rained down rhetorical fire on
Pressure will continue to be high on the shoulders of Netanyahu to drop the
Ramat Shlomo project. A meeting in the middle may come down to simply tabling
this matter for future consideration. This flap has demonstrated the strength
of the Netanyahu government, another measure necessary for the Chinese to read
if Israel will indeed go it alone against Tehran.
That the US and Israel are working so closely together to send a serious
message to China - a message that might mean everything in terms of getting
realistic about penalty laden sanctions that will influence Iran - also has
serious meaning even if the ploy is not read.
President Hu Jintao's government will soon need to decide to risk all in the
Persian Gulf or rein in long-time ally Iran. It seems many in the US and Israel
believe it's now or never for sanctions.
(Copyright 2010 David Moon.)
(Courtesy of AFI Research,
which provides information resource for the world's news media, major
commercial concerns, universities and government departments and is designed
specifically for researchers, journalists, editors, producers, publishers,
security managers, risk assessors, academics and the intelligence community.)