As Palestine calls off peace talks because of Israel's new settlement plans, Eric Alterman assesses the challenges Biden faces—and why the U.S. and its allies must prevail.
No question Joe Biden’s having a hell of a time over in the Middle East. Biden originally had a multifaceted agenda: He wanted to reassure Israelis of the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel’s safety and security, settle on some sort of joint plan to address the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, and jump-start peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. But the Israelis apparently had another agenda.
The day before he showed up, Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu appeared onstage with Pastor John Hagee in Jerusalem. Hagee, of course, is the right-wing Christian evangelical leader who thought New Orleans got what it had coming to it with Katrina, and is dead-set against any kind of peace settlement that recognizes Palestinian statehood. “If America puts pressure on Israel to divide Jerusalem, we are following the blueprint of the Prince of Darkness,” Hagee has said. “Amos 3:2 states that any nation that divides the Land of Israel will come under the severe judgment of God.”
If you look at the prospects for peace through negotiation, it’s just about hopeless. The Netanyahu government is doing everything it can to undermine peace talks.
• Reihan Salam: Biden’s Disasterous Israel Trip The following day, before Biden arrived, the Israeli government announced approval for 112 new homes in Beitar Illit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, despite having agreed in November to curb settlement growth in partial fulfillment of Israel’s obligations under the Bush administration road map. But that was just a warm-up, apparently, for the announcement later in the day by the Jerusalem District Planning Committee that it had authorized the construction of 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood north of downtown Jerusalem.
Israel's interior minister apologized “for the distress this matter caused,” for but not for the plan itself. The Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, called the Israeli move “ damaging for sure.” And Biden, caught by surprise, condemned it too, in terms less ambiguous or ambivalent than visiting vice presidents usually condemn Israeli actions under almost any circumstances. "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," Biden said, calling it "precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now." "We must build an atmosphere to support negotiations, not complicate them," Biden said.
It is an indication of just how obvious the insult Biden was hit with that even Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, could not really complain about the substance of his objection, but only instruct the vice president about the proper protocol of such actions. "The condemnation should have been issued by the State Department in Washington," Foxman directed Biden.
Why were the Israelis so intent on insulting the visiting vice president? Plenty of reasons, undoubtedly—some big, some small. Obama is unpopular in Israel. Netanyahu wants to shore up his support with his right-wing coalition. The argument over Iran is real and has no obvious solution. But the real reason Israel is acting against its own self-interest, insulting its strongest supporter, refusing to honor the commitments it made not only to the United States but to all four members of “the Quartet,” and refusing to face up to the situation it has created for itself is that its leaders have decided that peace is off the table.
Israeli prime ministers of late have developed a habit of realizing that the only hope of saving Israel as both a democratic and Jewish society is to find a way to live in peace with the Palestinians after they can no longer do anything about it. The formerly hawkish Ehud Olmert, warned, “Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel's basic security?" To preserve itself as a Jewish state, he insisted, Israel needed to give up "almost all the territories, if not all," including the Arab parts of East Jerusalem.” (Unfortunately, he said these things just before he was forced to leave under a cloud of corruption.) More recently, Ex-PM Ehud Barak, now Israel’s defense minister, warned that “The simple truth is, if there is one state” including Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, “it will have to be either binational or undemocratic. … if this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
Thing is, if you look at the prospects for peace through negotiation, it’s just about hopeless. The Netanyahu government not only has no interes,; it is doing everything it can to undermine peace talks, violating agreements even by the definitions offered by Bush administration officials. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in 2006, "the president did say that at the time of final status, it will be necessary to take into account new realities on the ground that have changed since 1967, but under no circumstances... should anyone try and do that in a pre-emptive or predetermined way, because these are issues for negotiation at final status." And yet no one, no matter how hopeful or optimistic, would argue that the Palestinian Authority is in a position to enforce a peace agreement with Israel or that Hamas, which rules all but unopposed in Gaza, is ready to accept one.
And so the only possibility for peace is for the United States and its allies to impose one. This, too, is an awful long shot, for all kinds of reasons. But it is where the logic of the situation is inexorably leading. And if it were somehow to succeed, it would save Israel from the fate its once-hawkish leaders so fear. But Netanyahu and his even more recalcitrant foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, are going to fight this possibility tooth and nail. So you can expect Israeli hawks, and their American Jewish (and right-wing evangelical) supporters, to become ever more militant in their condemnations of the Obama administration and its supporters in the United States. They think they know what’s coming and they want to make that decision as painful as possible in order to prevent its implementation. If it does, all the arguments we have so far seen will look like lovemaking in comparison. Forewarned is forearmed… for all concerned.
Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.