So much for a friendly Biden visit to Israel

So much for a friendly Biden visit to Israel

It looked this morning like U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was going to have a nice, friendly visit to Israel, even though the government there announced on the eve of his trip that it was approving new construction in an existing settlement bloc in the West Bank.

"The bond between our two nations has been and will remain unshakable," Biden wrote this morning in President Shimon Peres’s guestbook. "Only together can we achieve lasting peace in the region." He also praised Peres as "articulate."

The State Department’s initial statement on the matter was exceedingly cautious, suggesting that the United States was willing to swallow Israel’s argument that the new building didn’t violate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 10-month moratoriumon on new settlement construction.

But then, the Israeli Interior Ministry added another wrinkle, announcing a plan to build 1,600 new homes in hotly contested East Jerusalem. The official story is that Netanyahu didn’t know the announcement was coming, and that Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads the hard-line Shas Party, was freelancing. Apparently the prime minister’s office is looking into the matter.

Biden came out with this harsh statement today:

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel. We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them. This announcement underscores the need to get negotiations under way that can resolve all the outstanding issues of the conflict. The United States recognizes that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue for Israelis and Palestinians and for Jews, Muslims and Christians. We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world. Unilateral action taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations on permanent status issues. As George Mitchell said in announcing the proximity talks, "we encourage the parties and all concerned to refrain from any statements or actions which may inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks."

UPDATE: Yishai is now saying he didn’t know about the 1,600 new housing units either, as it was all just "a technical authorization in Jerusalem, which isn’t part of the settlement freeze" and therefore didn’t require his signoff. This, frankly, doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Nor does this:

"If I’d have known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone," Yishai said. "It is definitely unpleasant that this happened during Biden’s visit. If the committee members would have known that the approval would have escalated to such a situation, they would have informed me," Yishai emphasized.

Haaretz also quotes "a high-ranking official in Jerusalem" saying that Netanyahu has "no problem" with the new construction but would have preferred not to embarrass Biden. Nice of him.

So what should the United States do? The danger is that  whoever was behind this little maneuver will get what they want — deep-sixing the recently announced proximity talks — if the Obama administration moves to somehow punish Israel for this ploy. But the United States is not in the business of punishing Israel for major sleights like this (most likely, Biden’s statement was the end of it, and maybe some Israeli officials will have more trouble getting their calls returned for a few weeks). That leaves the unpalatable option of letting the Palestinians walk away from the table before they get there, which is the equivalent of throwing the Israeli hard-liners into ye olde briar patch.