In its determination to prove it is not the Bush administration, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to curry favor with the Arabs and criticize Israel. Having succeeded in alienating most of the Israeli public, the administration sent Vice President Joseph Biden to Jerusalem to convince Israelis they have a friend in the White House, but Biden couldn’t stick to the script and managed to reinforce their fears rather than reassure them.
Biden was prepared to say all the right things, and did say many of them, but when he decided it was necessary to publicly blast Israel for announcing the construction of more homes in its capital, he frittered away any chance he had of accomplishing his objective. This is not to defend the Israeli decision, which substantively may have been justifiable, but could not have been publicized at a worse moment. Still, Biden could have just as easily told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind closed doors that this was an embarrassing and stupid announcement. Friends keep their disagreements private as much as possible, a lesson Obama could learn from Bill Clinton’s stewardship of U.S.-Israel ties.
The biggest problem with Biden’s condemnation is that it reinforced the view that the administration’s policy is tilted off the table in favor of the Arabs. For more than a year now, Arab leaders have stuck their fingers in Obama’s eye and refused to cooperate in any way with his initiatives. The Palestinians have been equally persistent in demonstrating by word and deed that they have no desire whatsoever to discuss peace. They have obstinately refused to enter direct negotiations and repeatedly engaged in incitement, which most recently featured threats of provoking a holy war. Meanwhile, Biden and the rest of the administration have not uttered a word of criticism. Had he at least remarked on the Arab record when chastising Israel, he might have blunted some of the damage, but, instead, he left Israelis with a worse impression of the administration than before he arrived.
It was not surprising that Mahmoud Abbas immediately used the Israeli announcement as a pretext for pulling out of the indirect talks he had finally agreed to and that few people outside the Obama administration believed were worth undertaking in the first place. Again, Israel’s announcement may have been ill-timed, but has nothing to do with the recalcitrance of the Palestinians.
If Biden really wanted to do something for the Palestinians, he would not feed their latest tantrum. Instead, he should point out to Abbas the simple historical truth that the longer he waits to negotiate an agreement with Israel, the more Jews will be living in the areas he wants and the less land he will get in the end. Had Jimmy Carter said this to Yasser Arafat 30 years ago when 12,000 Jews lived in the west bank, the conflict might have been resolved. Now, nearly 300,000 Jews live in that same area. Whose side is time really on?
It was nice that the vice president visited Israel, and his intentions were good, but given Israeli insecurities about this administration, Biden was a poor substitute for the president. The truth is the political aspects of U.S.-Israel relations are shaped by the prime minister and the president, and envoys and other underlings simply don’t matter.
Despite the tensions, Obama cannot yet be compared to America’s most anti-Israel presidents – George H.W. Bush and Dwight Eisenhower – but his administration is certainly the most tone deaf and naÃ¯ve.
Obama himself has to travel to Jerusalem and speak directly to the Israeli people and convince them by word and, more important, by deed, that he is indeed their staunch ally. So long as suspicions remain and the administration continues its one-sided public approach to the conflict, it is only making the prospect of diplomatic success more remote. Without the conviction that America has its back, Israel cannot afford the risks required for peace.