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Published: Tuesday, 3/16/2010

Biden blew chance to give Israel a stinging message

BY THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

I AM a big Joe Biden fan. The vice president is an indefatigable defender of U.S. interests abroad.

So it pains me to say that on his recent trip to Israel, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government rubbed his nose in some new housing plans for contested East Jerusalem, the vice president missed a chance to send a powerful public signal.

He should have snapped his notebook shut, gotten right back on Air Force Two, flown home, and left the following scribbled note behind: "Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don't let friends drive drunk. And right now, you're driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you're serious. We need to focus on building our country."

I think that - rather than fuming and making up - would have sent a very useful message for two reasons. First, what the Israelis did played right into a question a lot of people are asking about the Obama team: How tough are these guys? The last thing the President needs, at a time when he is facing down Iran and China - not to mention Congress - is to look as if America's most dependent ally can push him around.

And second, Israel needs a wake-up call. Continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, and even housing in disputed East Jerusalem, is sheer madness. Yasser Arafat accepted that Jewish suburbs there would be under Israeli sovereignty in any peace deal that would also make Arab parts of East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital. Israel's planned housing expansion raises questions about whether Israel will ever be willing to concede a Palestinian capital in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem - a big problem.

Israel has already bitten off plenty of the West Bank. If it wants to remain a Jewish democracy, its only priority now should be striking a deal with the Palestinians that would allow it to swap those settlement blocs in the West Bank occupied by Jews for an equal amount of land from Israel for the Palestinians and then reap the benefits - economic and security - of ending the conflict.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened last week. For nine months now, America's Middle East special envoy, George Mitchell, has been trying to find a way to get any kind of peace talks going between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinians don't trust Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he has serious doubts about whether the divided Palestinian leadership can deliver.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mitchell was eventually able to persuade the two sides to agree on "proximity talks" - the Palestinians would sit in Ramallah and the Israelis in Jerusalem and Mr. Mitchell would shuttle 30 minutes between them. After a decade of direct talks, this is how far things have fallen.

Mr. Mitchell's and Mr. Netanyahu's aides struck an informal deal: If America got talks going, there would be no announcements of buildings in East Jerusalem, nothing to embarrass the Palestinians and force them to walk. Mr. Netanyahu agreed, U.S. officials say, but made clear he couldn't commit to anything publicly.

So what happened? Vice President Biden arrived the day after the proximity talks started, and out came an announcement from Israel's Interior Ministry that Israel had just approved plans for 1,600 new housing units in Arab East Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu said he was blindsided. It's probably true in the narrow sense. The move seems to have been part of a competition between two of Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing Sephardi ministers from the religious Shas Party over who can be the greater champion of building homes for Sephardi orthodox Jews in East Jerusalem. It is a measure of how much Israel takes our support for granted and how out of touch the Israeli religious right is with America's strategic needs.

Vice President Biden - a real friend of Israel's - was quoted as telling his Israeli interlocutors: "What you are doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That endangers us and endangers regional peace."

This whole fracas also distracts us from the potential of this moment: Only a right-wing prime minister, such as Mr. Netanyahu, can make a deal over the West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu's actual policies on the ground there have helped Palestinians grow their economy and put in place their own rebuilt security force, which is working with the Israeli army to prevent terrorism.

Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are as genuine and serious about working toward a solution as any Israel can hope to find. Hamas has halted its attacks on Israel from Gaza. With the Sunni Arabs obsessed with the Iran threat, their willingness to work with Israel has never been higher. The best way to isolate Iran is to take the Palestinian conflict card out of Tehran's hand.

There may be a real opportunity here - if Mr. Netanyahu chooses to seize it. The Israeli leader needs to make up his mind whether he wants to make history or once again be a footnote to it.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for the New York Times.



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