The embarrassment over Israel's announcement of 1,600 new housing units during U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit has been elevated to an outright controversy with the public rebuke issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On Thursday, Biden affirmed that the U.S.-Israel relationship is "impervious to any shifts in either country," and that "[n]o matter what challenges we face, this bond will endure."
Just a day later, however, according to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone that "the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship [italics added] and to the peace process." The secretary proceeded to amplify her rebuke through a series of TV interviews.
The United States is justifiably upset over the incident. But its alliance with Israel is crucial for both sides. An Israel that is weakened in its relationship with the United States will not be strong enough to take risks for peace. Moreover, the United States looks bad when a statement by its own vice president on Thursday is being put into serious question by the State Department spokesman on Friday.
Fortunately, the U.S.-Israel relationship still has a solid core. There have been almost a dozen separate high-level visits to each country in just the last two months, as the two countries are cooperating extremely closely in their efforts to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The United States also stood with Israel in resisting the unbalanced Goldstone report on Gaza. The two countries also engaged in a massive military exercise together recently.
President Barack Obama has reason to be upset by this episode,which must seem like déjà vu. After what Netanyahu described as his best meeting yet with Obama last November, the prime minister was blindsided by an announcement from his own bureaucracy regarding the construction of 900 new units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
After this embarrassment, senior U.S. officials say Netanyahu pledged that there would not be any more surprises for the prime minister's office, or for the Obama administration. Netanyahu promised to create a mechanism to avoid such mishaps. During the previous Ehud Olmert government, the prime minister had a parliamentary representative keeping track of settlement decisions in order to prevent such a miscommunication. Apparently for the current government, this mechanism was either not established or it did not work. It is hard to know which is worse. If there was no mechanism, the Israelis are guilty of duplicity. If there was a mechanism that failed to function, it is ineptitude.