There were the expected handshakes and bear hugs, the slaps on the back and supportive words amiably expressed before the media. Just what ought to happen when Israel welcomes the vice president of the United States, the second in command of its greatest ally and the highest-ranking official of a still-new administration to visit Jerusalem.
Then, dafka, the proverbial stab in the back.
Hours after Vice President Joe Biden declared that there is “no space” between Israel and the U.S., the Israeli government announces the approval of 1,600 new housing units in contested East Jerusalem, expanding the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood for ultra-Orthodox Jews on land that Palestinians also claim. The announcement from the Interior Ministry, run by the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, claimed that the expansion has been in the works for years (true) and that the timing was just a coincidence (hard to believe).
The day after, press reports said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was surprised and embarrassed by the timing of the announcement. If true, that suggests he is incapable of managing his sprawling administration, so packed with patronage that it is the largest in Israel’s history — hardly an encouraging thought.
In any case, this is no way to treat a guest. The timing and the substance of the announcement left Biden in a terrible spot, forced to condemn his host’s behavior even as he was trying to launch a new round of indirect negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.
As Americans, we feel insulted. Contrary to the spin generated in some quarters, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to support Israel and the Netanyahu government. As the Forward has reported, cooperation between the two nations is flourishing — the Obama administration has worked hard to bolster Israel’s qualitative military edge, which had eroded during the final year of the presidency of George W. Bush. America continues to do the heavy lifting required to fend off unfair criticism of Israel in unfriendly venues. And American Jews continue to pour money, resources and energy into ensuring Israel’s future.
Some Jews believe that all of Jerusalem belongs under Israeli control, but that is a political position, not an indisputable fact. Another people also lays claim to this holy city. This is why negotiations are so desperately needed — and why expanding Ramat Shlomo by fiat may serve the narrow purposes of a political agenda, but it obstructs the broader goal of a negotiated settlement. As Israeli writer (and Forward contributing editor) Uri Dromi wrote the day after this debacle: “By expanding settlements, instead of separating from the Palestinians while we still can, we Israelis are dooming ourselves to lose the Jewish and democratic state that has been won with so much sacrifice.”
But our reaction to this announcement is more personal. The American vice president was placed in a humiliating position. Note to Israel: That’s not how you treat your best friend.