Biden's Disastrous Israel Trip

Joe Biden's blast at Israel's plan for new housing units will only make the Obama team more unpopular in Jerusalem. Reihan Salam on America's waning influence abroad.

03.10.10 6:41 AM ET

Israel apologized for embarrassing Vice President Joe Biden by announcing it had approved 1,600 new homes in disputed east Jerusalem while the vice president was engaged in talks with Palestinian leaders—but now Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has pulled out of peace talks. Reihan Salam on America's waning influence abroad.

Among Israelis, opinions of the Obama administration are decidedly mixed. Last year, many latched onto poll numbers that suggested that President Obama only had the support of 4 percent of Israelis. Yet those shockingly low numbers were misleading. Another survey, sponsored by the New America Foundation, found that 41 percent of Israelis held a favorable opinion of Obama, while 37 percent held an unfavorable opinion. Interestingly, only 42 percent of respondents believed that Obama supports Israel. If we accept that reality lies somewhere between these extremes, one gets the impression that while the White House has alienated many Israelis, the damage isn't necessarily permanent. That's why Vice President Biden's mission to Jerusalem is so vitally important, and why it's been such a disaster so far.

It's hard to see the awkwardness of Biden's visit so far having a broader political impact.

Eric Alterman: The Only Hope for Mideast Peace Unlike President Obama, an outsider without a long track record on issues relating to the Middle East, Joe Biden had a reputation in the Senate as one of Israel's staunchest allies. Last year, during a memorable address at AIPAC's Annual Policy Conference, Biden had very warm words for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he claimed as an old and dear friend. More broadly, he described his lifelong commitment to the American partnership with Israel, which he traced to a fateful meeting with Golda Meir that occurred shortly before the Yom Kippur War. But then, after offering a deeply moving statement of his Zionist convictions, he gently offered what sounded to some like a rebuke. After insisting that Israel work towards a two-state solution, Biden added, in his wry and conversational style, "you're not going to like me saying this, but [Israel has to] not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement based on their first actions."

The vice president was quick to temper these remarks by insisting that this would be a "show me" deal in which the Palestinians would have to demonstrate their good faith. All the same, Israelis inclined to distrust the Obama administration were concerned, not least because U.S. diplomatic efforts seemed to place a heavier burden on Israel than on neighboring Arab states. The oft-heard critique is that by seeking Israeli concessions on settlement-building first, the White House was asking Israelis to give up something tangible without getting anything in return. So it's understandable that the Obama foreign policy team was looking to pivot away from nudging, if not pressuring, Israel into making any further sacrifices for a peace process that seems very remote.

Rather than focus primarily on kickstarting a peace process Israelis consider badly broken, the vice president's visit was intended to reassure the Israeli public that the Obama administration takes the threat posed by Iran seriously, and emphasizing that the U.S. is absolutely committed to Israeli security. But just as Biden arrived in Israel, the Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 new housing units for Jewish residents in East Jerusalem, a move many, including many in the Obama administration, have interpreted as a deliberate provocation. The vice president put geniality aside to issue a stern and unambiguous statement: "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units." The general consensus is that Prime Minister Netanyahu was discomfited by the timing, yet he has relatively little leverage over his right-of-center allies in his fractious coalition government. Though spokesmen for the Interior Ministry insist that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with Biden's arrival, it's undoubtedly true that the move will enhance the nationalist 'street cred' of its architects. Moreover, East Jerusalem is viewed very differently from the West Bank and Gaza. A government announcement of a ten-month freeze on settlement construction did not include Jerusalem, and there is very little appetite for surrendering an inch of the city to a future Palestinian state.

It's hard to see the awkwardness of Biden's visit so far having a broader political impact. But it does contribute to the impression, fair or unfair, that President Obama is presiding over an era of diminished American influence, in which allies and rivals alike feel comfortable thumbing their noses at a White House focused above all else on its domestic priorities.

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.