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Stepping Back From the Brink After Biden's Israel Contretemps

March 18, 2010 By:
Abraham H. Foxman
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Abraham H. Foxman

On some level, it couldn't have been worse. We have a situation where the most trusted member of the U.S. administration -- Vice President Joe Biden -- is in Israel, seeking to win over the hearts and minds of the Israeli public, which, according to the polls, is highly suspicious of the Barack Obama government. In his opening public remarks, the vice president shows that he's cognizant of the need by the administration to state more clearly and vociferously than it had before that the American-Israeli special relationship is as strong as ever.

Included in his comments was the crucial statement that when it comes to matters affecting Israel's security, there is no space whatsoever between the American and Israeli positions.

The administration was paying attention to those of us who have been saying for some time that it was imperative for the president and vice president to use their bully pulpits to make clear that the outreach to the Muslim world did not mean any erosion in the U.S.-Israel relationship.

This was important for at least three reasons: to keep the trust of the Israeli people; to prevent illusions about a weakening American support among the Palestinians, which could lead them to conclude that peace is not necessary; and to make clear to anti-Israel forces around the world, who are feeling their oats these days, that the United States is not a ripe target for their campaigns against Israel.

The stage was set, therefore, for the most successful effort for strengthening ties since the new administration entered office. And then came the announcement of plans for building 1,600 new apartments in eastern Jerusalem.

You don't have to accept the most cynical interpretation of that announcement -- that the prime minister knew about it -- to recognize what a disaster the effect became. Whatever the motivation and whoever the responsible party, it is the government of Israel that is justifiably held accountable for converting an optimal moment in U.S.-Israel relations into a moment of crisis.

The Israeli government had an obligation to anticipate what might go wrong during the vice president's visit and to give firm instruction to all Cabinet members about avoiding such pitfalls, particularly on the subjects of settlements and eastern Jerusalem.

That the administration was angry was not surprising.

First was the sense of personal embarrassment to Biden, especially since part of his mission was to enhance the relationship between the two countries. Second was the need to separate America from the Israeli actions, lest it be perceived that the coincidence of the Biden presence and the building announcement be linked in the minds of the Palestinians and Arab world. And third, with the proximity talks in the works, the administration undoubtedly saw a vociferous reaction as necessary to mitigate Palestinian anger so that dialogue could, indeed, proceed.

While much of this is understandable, there needs to be some stepping back so that there are no long-term deleterious results from this contretemps. The vice president's comments in his Tel Aviv University address softening the U.S. response was helpful. Less helpful were his comments that Israel's announcement on building in eastern Jerusalem was endangering U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This is the kind of rhetoric that does exactly what Biden has studiously avoided doing -- linking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to America's larger Middle East challenges. And it unnecessarily calls into question Israel's role as an ally and its impact on American interests. The John Mearsheimers and Stephen Walts of this world will delight in this kind of criticism of Israel.

It is also in America's interest not to let this unfortunate incident give the Palestinians another excuse not to do what is right -- to finally negotiate a compromise peace with Israel and to stop the preaching of hatred. I'd like to see some of the kind of passion and emotion just exhibited in criticism of Israel be employed to condemn the continuous teaching of hatred of Israel in Palestinian schools and television, as well as in the ongoing honoring and martyrdom of Palestinian terrorists who murder Israeli civilians.

Ultimately, Palestinian unwillingness to compromise for peace and stop the hate are the real obstacles in the region. The administration should not let its temporary unhappiness with Israel divert it from these essential truths. u

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and author ofThe Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.

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