Commenting last week on the “Biden row,” President Obama said there was no “crisis” between the United States and Israel, just that the actions of the interior minister in Israel “weren’t helpful” and that “Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged as much and apologized for it.” Really? So why did the U.S. administration make such a fuss about it for days, way after Netanyahu had formally apologized? Why did the administration keep saying that the government of Israel, not just the interior minister, had insulted the United States? And why did the administration go so far as to summon the Israeli ambassador in Washington to Foggy Bottom to be scolded, a very harsh step by diplomatic standards, especially between friends?
Back to the hard facts. Vice President Joe Biden landed in Israel on March 8, in the evening. The mood was cheerful. Everybody, both on the American and the Israeli side, recalled that Biden, in his previous life as a U.S. senator, had been one of Israel’s most reliable friends on Capitol Hill.
March 9 was equally idyllic. That is to say, until 6:00 p.m. Then, news broke, from an Israeli Interior Ministry source, that Israel was going to build 1600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood in northern Jerusalem that the Obama administration sees as part of East Jerusalem, i.e., an “occupied Palestinian territory.” (Previous U.S. administrations had various views on East Jerusalem: those parts of the city that were either no man’s land or under Jordanian occupation until 1967. But they usually agreed that its ultimate legal status was legally undecided and should be settled through Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.)
It looked a bit like an Israeli blunder, or even a provocation, since Netanyahu had agreed to Obama’s request, some six months earlier, to freeze for some time any settlement building in the West Bank, if not in East Jerusalem. Biden insisted on apologies. Netanyahu was eager to get over the incident — he and his wife were supposed to host the Bidens for dinner that same evening — and did indeed apologize to him.
However, it became clear very soon that there was no Israeli decision at all to expand Ramat Shlomo. The Israeli prime minister had not passed any such decision. The Israeli interior minister — Eli Yishai, from the Sefardi orthodox Shas Party — hadn’t either. There was only a green light, at a very subordinate bureaucratic level at the Ministry, to review a housing project, without any kind of government commitment. Lara Friedman, an analyst writing for Americans for Peace Now, a militant group opposing any kind of Israeli settlement across the pre-1967 green line, said:
This has been reported by many as a deliberate slap in the face to Vice President Biden by the government of Israel. The facts are less clear. From what we understand it seems almost certain that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not know about the plan or have advance warning that it would be considered and approved for public review at this time. Likewise, this is not the sort of thing that comes under the authority of (Jerusalem) Mayor Barkat. If the timing of this approval/announcement was deliberate, than the culprit here is more likely Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) and/or right-wing officials in the Interior Ministry bureaucracy.