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03.11.10

Why Bibi Humiliated Biden

Netanyahu sensed a political advantage, and he's pressing it. Martin Indyk, former American ambassador to Israel, explains Netanyahu's remarkable decision to taunt his country's most important ally.

What happened to Vice President Biden this week in Jerusalem was egregious but hardly new. Right-wing governments in Israel have regularly embarrassed high-level U.S. officials by making announcements about new settlement activity during or just after their visits. But it usually happens to secretaries of state. It infuriated James Baker, confounded Condoleezza Rice, and appalled Madeleine Albright.

When I served as Albright's ambassador in Israel, during Bibi Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister, he announced a major extension to an existing West Bank settlement as she departed Israel after one of her efforts to move the peace process forward. When she heard the news, she called me on an open line and shouted: "You tell Bibi that he needs to stop worrying about his right wing and start worrying about the United States."

The excuse that Netanyahu was blindsided by settler gremlins in the Interior Ministry strains credulity.

It was good advice, but it went unheeded. Antagonizing the Clinton administration eventually contributed to Netanyahu's downfall. Israeli voters punished him for mishandling the relationship with Israel's only true ally.

The second time around, one might have expected Netanyahu to be more circumspect about his relations with the Obama administration, especially because Israel is now so dependent on the United States to deal with the growing threat from Iran.

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But three developments seem to have emboldened Netanyahu. First, Obama lost the Israeli public by convincing them—through his Cairo speech and customary cool—that he wanted to distance the United States from Israel in order to curry favor with the Arab World. For the first time, Netanyahu found himself in the unusual position of being more popular at home than the U.S. president (Clinton and Bush enjoyed 70-80 percent public approval ratings in Israel).

Second, the Republicans have started making a comeback in Washington, raising the possibility of using Congress to constrain the president. That was something Netanyahu deployed to considerable advantage once Clinton lost control of the House to the Israelis' close friend Newt Gingrich. He probably savors the opportunity to do it again.

Third, Obama purposely delinked the peace process from Iran, making clear to Netanyahu that, despite their deep differences over settlement activity, they would be completely coordinated on the strategic issue of curbing Iran's nuclear program.

So my guess is this fortuitous combination generated sloppiness in the prime minister’s office. That's the only way I can explain the humiliation of the vice president of the United States on the very day that he came to Jerusalem to try to persuade the Israeli public, using Biden-esque hyperbole, that the Obama administration really does love them.

The excuse that Netanyahu was blind-sided by settler gremlins in the Interior ministry strains credulity. That's because his aides have spent a good deal of time lately reassuring Washington that Israel would avoid provocative actions in Jerusalem that might sabotage the indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that were launched this week.

Now that hard-won, nine-month American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table is in serious jeopardy. If the indirect talks collapse before they even start, Netanyahu will inevitably be blamed.

The Palestinians surely sense that they have an opportunity to turn the tables on Israel, so Netanyahu has very little time to get himself out of this self-generated mess.

There is one way to repair the damage to U.S.-Israel relations and to his own standing with the Israeli public. He could immediately declare that in order to boost the chances for negotiations, he is calling a halt to all provocative acts in Jerusalem—including announcements of new building activity in east Jerusalem, housing demolitions, and evictions. He should also establish a mechanism in the prime minister's office to ensure that his decision is implemented. Such actions would both demonstrate his commitment to the negotiations and to repairing the damage to his friendship with Joe Biden and the United States.

Can't do it because of his right wing? This time Netanyahu should listen to Albright’s counsel.

Martin Indyk is the vice president and director of foreign policy at The Brookings Institution and author of the recently published I nnocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East (Simon & Schuster 2009).