Why was it necessary for Netanyahu to embarrass Biden, a longtime supporter of Israel and a man the prime minister describes as a personal friend? Did Netanyahu even know of the plan to announce the decision during the visit? The answer to the second question is apparently negative, as Netanyahu has denied being in the loop. As for the timing, it might have been a coincidence because the committee was planning to do it anyway.
It wouldn't even come as a surprise to anybody following the Israeli bureaucracy closely. Many in the United States see Netanyahu as a hard-liner who isn't serious about peace. But seen from Israel, a perhaps more-important issue is the incompetence of some of his advisors. Netanyahu's government makes unnecessary blunders (such as the recent pointless insults to the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv) on an almost weekly basis, though usually the consequences aren't always so far-reaching.
For Netanyahu, the current disorganized construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is a feature, not a bug. Israeli governments, as a rule, find it useful to leave such district planning commissions with no supervision. "A righteous person's work is done by others," goes the old Jewish saying. Why should a minister bother to interrupt? If the construction goes unnoticed, Israel has succeeded in creating "facts on the ground" in a disputed area. If the plan is exposed, better not to be involved. East Jerusalem is not officially included in Netanyahu's pledge to freeze construction in the settlements for 10 months. But a close look at the situation in the West Bank will show that even there, the government and the settlers have found diverse ways to bypass the official decision. Settlers were granted permission to build hundreds of housing units just before the freeze was announced, and they are also allowed to complete houses for which the foundations have already been laid.
There is also a potential domestic political explanation for the latest crisis. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is the leader of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party on the right wing of Netanyahu's coalition. His ministry's decision will mostly help Shas constituents living in the overcrowded religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Yishai faces fierce competition from within his party, but unlike Netanyahu, the interior minister can afford some criticism from Washington. Actually, it might even help him among his voters.
Not surprisingly, the Palestinians could hardly curb their enthusiasm regarding the Israeli fiasco. While not very keen to achieve any progress in the "proximity talks" with the Israelis, Palestinian leaders are more than happy to see Israel take the blame for any obstacles to Obama's dream of peace in the region. Unfortunately, the outcome for Netanyahu might be even worse. At such a delicate time regarding Iran, Israel needs maximum cooperation and understanding from the Unites States. But after this latest scandal, Obama and Biden now have fewer reasons to trust Netanyahu's word.