Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally broke the glass on Tuesday, but that was just the beginning -- and only the lesser Israeli disaster in a day that marked a new low point for Netanyahu's rocky relationship with the current U.S. administration. The Israeli prime minister's team prepared a symbolic gift for visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden: a framed document announcing that several trees were planted in Jerusalem in memory of Biden's mother, a loyal supporter of Israel. But Netanyahu leaned on the present by mistake and shattered the glass frame. "I have one thing to offer you right now, and it's broken glass," the prime minister said, trying to improvise a joke during a joint news conference. It got worse.
Biden arrived in Israel, the third and most-senior U.S. official to do so in less than three weeks, mainly to talk about Iran. President Barack Obama's administration is worried that Israel might interfere with the U.S. plan to initiate international sanctions against the regime in Tehran by launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. But apart from issuing restraining orders against Israeli F-16s, the Americans were also hoping to show progress on the Palestinian track. After many attempts, and many mistakes, it seemed by early March that both sides were willing to resume negotiations, though indirectly, mediated by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell. This was hardly a cause for celebration because everybody involved in the talks assumes there is only a slight chance of significant achievement in the near future. Yet Netanyahu managed to ruin even that. A few hours after Biden arrived in Jerusalem, Israel's Interior Ministry announced that approval had been granted to build 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem that borders the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat.
The units were authorized by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, the body in charge of approving such programs. It will be one of the largest construction projects launched by Israel in Jerusalem in recent years. It is also seen as a direct insult to the vice president because the Obama administration had emphasized numerous times during the last few months its strong reservations against Jewish neighborhoods expanding beyond the Green Line (1967 borders) in East Jerusalem. Ramat Shlomo lies beyond that line.
Biden reacted immediately. In Washington, the White House issued a statement condemning the decision, while the vice president, acting in what was clearly an undiplomatic manner, arrived an hour and a half late to a formal dinner with the prime minister and his wife. Biden, it was explained, was busy on the phone with Washington, trying to figure out the appropriate U.S. response. Then on Wednesday in Ramallah, the vice president verbally attacked the Israeli decision, saying the housing plan "undermines ... the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as produce profitable negotiations."