Bibi, Biden and Barack: Back off, start afresh


Ever since Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the State of Israel, and the extremely ill-timed “announcement” by a mid-level Israeli official that an additional 1,600 housing units would be constructed in northern Jerusalem, what might have been an unfortunate blip in the longstanding cordial U.S.-Israel relationship has reached — and remains–in a “crisis” mode. Indeed, Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States has often been quoted in recent days as describing the U.S.-Israel relationship as being in its most serious crisis “in decades.”

The issues are complex and there has been too much over-heated rhetoric on all sides, and so Larry Levin and I are doing separate columns to examine them in the hopes of shedding some “light” and to reduce the “heat” in the present controversy. But bottom line: The U.S.-Israel relationship, which has had its ups and downs in the almost 62 years of Israel’s independence, remains strong and “unbreakable” in the words of Biden, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the best interest of preserving that relationship and moving forward toward the long-sought peace, it is absolutely essential that all of the parties involved take a time out to cool off, and then resume the efforts toward a two-state solution.


In the meantime, I would offer the following observations as lessons to be learned from the Biden-Bibi-Barack dust-up:

* Vice President Joe Biden, who is often the butt of humor for his tendency to put his foot in his mouth (such as his unfortunate joking use of the “f-word” just before the singing of the Health Care Bill), deserves to be commended for the cool-headed and measured way he responded to the announcement from the Israeli Interior Ministry relating to the construction of the 1,600 units in norhern Jerusalem. Biden had started his talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a strong reaffirmation of the “unbreakable” ties between the United States and Israel. When the announcement came, along with the first of a series of apologies from Netanyahu, Biden had no real choice but to express his strong condemnation of the announcement. He also went ahead with a strongly positive speech that same day. He did keep Netanyahu and his wife waiting for two hours for a scheduled dinner as a “diplomatic” way of expressing his displeasure.

* Biden’s handling of the situation and Netanyahu’s apology should have put the matter to rest. Thomas L. Friedman, the brilliant foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, was way off base, in my opinion, with his scathing column headlined, “Driving Drunk In Jerusalem, in which he said that Biden “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.'” Fortunately, Biden did not follow Friedman’s advice and throw a public tantrum, which would only have made a bad situation worse.

* More on target than Tom Friedman was Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who commented that the day after Biden returned to Washington after Bibi’s apology, “the administration went nuclear. After discussing with the president specific language she would use, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu to deliver a hostile and highly aggressive 45-minute message that the Biden incident had created an unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Israel relations.” Small wonder that Ambassador Michael Oren, an acclaimed published historian on Israel and its Middle East neighbors, described the U.S.-Israel relationship as being in its most serious crisis “in decades.” Friends not only do not let friends drive drunk. Longterm friends give each other the benefit of the doubt. Clinton’s reportedly White House directed tongue lashing of Netanyahu served only to keep the “crisis” brewing.

* Maureen Dowd, another Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, also weighed in with her harsh critique of Netanyahu in a column titled “Bibi’s Big Time-Out.” She wrote: “So, Barack Obama can lose his temper without a teleprompter. And we have the supremely aggravating Bibi Netanyahu to tank for that.” Dowd, who is both gifted and very clever, was grossly unfair in describing Netanyahu as being “extremely aggravating.” That same Netanyahu, Krauthammer points out who agreed, during a previous visit to Israel by Hillary Clinton, to a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements. Clinton at the time lavishly praised Bibi for his “unprecedented” decision, but was forced to walk back from her praise when the “moderate” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak objected. Netanhyau may be “extremely aggravating” to Maureen Dowd, but his decision on the 10-month freeze and his endorsement of an independent Palestinian state, are indeed unprecedented for a sitting Likud Party prime minister, and he deserves better treatment and support from its “one true ally.”

* A thoughtful and nuanced analysis of the current low state of relations between the U.S. and israel, by Robert Wright, who writes on culture and world affairs, appeared in The New York Times last week. In the otherwise fair-minded piece, Wright perpetuates the often-stated myth that a perceived “favoritism” towards Israel by the United States actually “might endanger American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Wright notes that “this concern was reportedly expressed last week by Vice President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. And General David Petrauus is said to worry about the threat posed to American troops — and to America’s whole strategic situation — by the perception of American favoritism toward Israel.” Wright defends the latter outrageous statement by stating, “Identifying theats to American troops is part of a general’s job, and it seems to me Petraeus could honestly conclude — without help from dark ‘anti-Israel’ impulses — that some of those threats are heightened by the Israel-Palestine conflict and America’s relationship to it.” Wright takes issue with Max Boot’s assertion on Commentary’s Web site, that such sentiments are indeed “anti-Israel.”

It seems to me that Boot is right and Wright is wrong on this subject. While all radical elements in the Middle East, including Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah and the fanatic regime in Iran foment hatred of Israel and use the Israel-Palestine issue for propaganda purposes, there is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them would be satisfied with a “two-state solution” of a Jewish States living side by side in peace and security with an independent State of Palestine. What Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the regime in Iran want is the desruction of the State of Israel altogether and its outright replacement with either a “one-state” solution or a province in a radical Islamist “Caliphate.”

So, what is to be done now? First all, let’s all call a time out. Let’s not fall victim to the over-heated rhetoric which can escalate into the kind of violence such as the Hamas-led “Day of Rage” in Jerusalem. Ever since President Harry S. Truman, the Man from Missouri, recognized Israel just 11 minutes after it proclaimed its Independence, the relationship between the sister democracies has indeed been “unbreakable.” The soft-spoken, but highly effective special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell brought an end to the 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland with his “Good Friday Accords,” which have served to bring quiet to a seemingly intractable conflict. Mitchell has his work cut out for him as he attempts once again to deploy those skills to restart at least “indirect” or “proximity” talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

We hope that both the United States and Israeli leadership can quickly step back from the current strained relationship and return to the historic partnership that has lasted for six decades. All we are asking is that George Mitchell be given a chance to give peace a chance.

Robert A. Cohn is the Jewish Light’s Editor-in-Chief Emeritus.