Biden's Trip to Israel
March 10, 2010
Q1: The main headline that resulted from Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel was Israel’s decision to announce the construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Was this an intentional Israeli action?
A1: Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that it had approved the construction to send a strong signal that Jerusalem is not negotiable. On the surface, the announcement undermines the resumption of indirect, U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks, which was the desired headline from the visit, and insults the vice president, who has been a close friend of Israel. But the move was more about Israeli coalition politics than diplomacy. The Shas Party controls the Interior Ministry, it opposes negotiations over Jerusalem, and it is a key partner to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his governing coalition. The ministry’s move was essentially a shot across Netanyahu’s bow, warning him not to discuss Jerusalem in any future political talks with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu is at all serious about talks with the Palestinian Authority, this will be just the beginning of his coalition woes. Meanwhile, the Israeli bilateral relationship with the United States has just become much more difficult. It is hard to remember a time when a senior U.S. official used the word “condemn” to describe the actions of any ally, let alone a close ally such as Israel, but that is precisely what the vice president did.
Q2: Vice President Biden follows a parade of high-level U.S. officials visiting Israel over the last several months. What was this trip supposed to be about?
A2: The vice president’s trip was intended to demonstrate that the Obama administration is engaged on Arab-Israeli peace issues and properly focused on Iran’s nuclear program. While the Obama administration can claim a modest achievement on the Israeli-Palestinian front, Israelis’ attention is far more centered on Iran. In a press conference in Jerusalem, Biden emphasized that “there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel in terms of Israel’s security. None.” Yet, Israelis are largely convinced that the gaps between U.S. and Israeli perceptions of the Iranian threat are deep and that the Obama administration does not have an adequate strategy to effectively confront Iran’s nuclear program. Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak acknowledged these gaps in a recent Washington address. “There is, of course, a certain difference in perspective and difference in judgment, difference in the internal clocks and difference in capabilities…we do not need to coordinate every step,” he said. Biden’s trip is part of an ongoing U.S. effort to ensure that Israel does coordinate every step with the United States. Most important among those steps is ensuring that Israel refrains from a sudden military action against Iran, which could have widespread consequences for U.S. interests throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Q3: The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority recently announced that they would resume indirect peace talks. What is the objective of the talks at this stage and what is the likely outcome?
A3: The special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, worked intensively over the past few months to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. The immediate objective seems simply to get the two sides talking about how to structure direct bilateral negotiations. Even this basic step represents progress, given the void in political discussions for the past year and a half. It is unclear at this point how the resumption of talks at this stage will change the strategic environment and calculations of either side. The gaps on the core issues remain deep and neither side appears willing to make the kind of compromises necessary for progress.
Haim Malka is senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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