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Biden was not to blame for Obama’s 2010 tantrum

A decade-old diplomatic incident highlights the US president-elect's long and friendly relationship with Israel and its leaders
The Bidens and the Netanyahus on one of the Vice President's visit. (Israel Government Press Office)
The Bidens and the Netanyahus on one of the Vice President's visits. (Israel Government Press Office)

President-elect Biden worries some friends of Israel because of a maelstrom the White House created over settlements announced as Vice President Biden arrived in Israel on March 8, 2010. By the time he left, Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu had calmed the storm. But the Obama White House wanted a crisis.

Lessons to learn a decade later.

On March 8, 2010, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel and was told of an administrative announcement by the Ministry of Interior approving one of the first stages toward the construction of 1,600 apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The perfunctory announcement represented no dramatic change of policy or diplomatic message. But the Americans responded as if it was a deliberate high-level slap in the face, and the Israeli government apologized profusely and repeatedly.

After two days of condemnations from the White House and the State Department followed by Israel’s deep apologies, it appeared that the crisis was over. On March 11, 2010, the press reported that Biden “attempted to soothe tensions in a speech extolling the countries’ close relationship, signaling the U.S. wants to move beyond an embarrassing diplomatic spat over settlements that tarnished his three-day visit.”

Biden noted that the prime minister had “clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years. … That’s significant because it gives negotiators the time to resolve this as well as other outstanding issues.” Press accounts reported that Netanyahu had called Biden on Thursday morning, “and both agreed the crisis is behind them.”

It wasn’t.

On March 12, 2010, in a move coordinated with the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unleashed a 43-minute telephone harangue of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Clinton called the settlement approval an “insult to the United States” and a “deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship … which had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process.” The State Department spokesman said Clinton stressed that “the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”

The “guilty” Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, a few hundred meters from the 1948 armistice line and adjacent to Sanhedria. (Google Earth)

On March 13, Netanyahu convened a meeting of his inner cabinet to discuss the Clinton call and to announce that he was establishing a government committee to oversee building announcements. On March 14, Netanyahu discussed the issue with the full cabinet and declared that the incident was “regrettable and should not have taken place.” Ostensibly, the crisis was over, at least as far as Israel was concerned.

Yet the White House Had Other Plans.

Hours later, presidential adviser David Axelrod went on Sunday’s TV news shows to attack the settlement decision. He said it was “very destructive … an affront … an insult. … What it did was it made more difficult a very difficult process.”

Over the next few days, anti-Israel and critical columnists and bloggers unleashed their venom against Israel. On March 15, the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote:

President Barack Obama was furious. In a top-down administration like this one, you don’t get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lambasting Netanyahu for 43 minutes and David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, speaking of “an affront” and “an insult” and a “very, very destructive” step if America’s measured leader is not immeasurably incensed. … Netanyahu’s apology is not enough. The United States is asking for “specific actions.”

So what happened?

A fire that was supposedly extinguished flared up again and again.

White House: Don’t Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste

Clearly, while Biden and Netanyahu were making up, in the White House a decision was made to apply Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s famous strategy for crisis management:

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you didn’t think you could do before.”

The 1,600 Jerusalem apartments would become the anvil on which the administration would forge a pliant Israel. The message would have to be amplified, and for the White House, the young, pro-Obama, purportedly pro-Israel J Street was a perfect vehicle.

According to official White House visitor logs, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and vice president of policy and strategy, Hadar Susskind, went to the White House to meet with officials in the White House Office of Public Engagement, headed by Obama’s close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett.

On March 11, and then again on March 12, the logs show Ben-Ami set a meeting for March 15 in the Old Executive Office Building with Danielle Borrin, who served on the vice president’s staff and in Jarrett’s office. On March 17, another meeting was set in the West Wing, the White House’s inner sanctum, for the next day with Tina Tchen, Jarrett’s principal deputy and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

On March 15, the day it met with Borrin, J Street issued a statement on the “escalation of U.S.-Israel tensions” warning that Israel’s “provocative actions undermine the peace process” and weaken the American attempts “to build a broad international coalition to address the Iranian nuclear program.” Parroting Emanuel’s strategy for crisis management, the J Street memo declared:

“Bold American leadership is needed now to turn this crisis into a real opportunity to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

On March 16, 2020, J Street sent out an action alert to its members, warning:

“Some hawkish pro-Israel activists are seizing the opportunity to attack the Obama Administration over Israel, urging the Administration to slow down and back off. The pro-Israel, pro-peace movement is stepping up strong … urging the Administration to turn this crisis into an opportunity for progress on two states.”

Four days after meeting with Tchen, J Street published an advertisement in the New York Times to push for White House activism:

It’s time for the Obama administration to seize the opportunity for bold leadership — putting concrete plans for a two-state solution on the table with the sustained commitment of the United States behind them. It’s time for the Palestinians to end incitement to violence. It’s time for Israel to stop allowing extremist settlers and their sympathizers to endanger not only the friendship of the United States, but also the very future of Israel.

Using a football term, J Street promoted itself as “Obama’s blocking back.” The attempt by the White House and J Street in March 2010 to run over Israel after the Ramat Shlomo housing fumble was stopped well before the goal line. On March 27, three-quarters of the House of Representatives — some 337 members — sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing solid support for Israel and voicing the expectation that differences between Jerusalem and Washington will be smoothed over quickly and in private.

A week later, the Senate followed with its letter of support signed by 76 members:

We recognize that our government and the Government of Israel will not always agree on particular issues in the peace process. But such differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that befits longstanding strategic allies. We must never forget the depth and breadth of our alliance and always do our utmost to reinforce a relationship that has benefited both nations for more than six decades.

Lessons for the Future?

  • Foreign policy is not made by “Washington” or the “White House.” It is made by individuals, some of whom have biases against Israel, or in the case of Obama and his staff, deep dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Those biases must be explored when appointments and hires are made for the next administration.
  • President-elect Joe Biden has a long and friendly relationship with Israel, its leaders, and American friends of Israel. Ad meah v’esrim – may he live to 120.

The Bidens and the Netanyahus on one of the Vice President’s visits. (Israel Government Press Office)
  • Congress will balance its bipartisanship in dealing with Israel. The American-Israeli relationship is based on shared DNA. In the 50+ years I have followed the Presidential-Congressional foreign policies dealing with Israel and the Middle East, the Republicans and Democrats in both houses tend to ignore the the anti-Israel blowhards. It doesn’t matter if their names are Findley, Tlaib, Abourezk, Omar, or Fulbright.
  • Congress has defended Israel against destabilizing presidential decrees from Republicans and Democrats — from Eisenhower, Nixon, Bush1, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama — as was the case after the Obama tantrum over Ramat Shlomo.
  • The Obama pressure on Israel wasn’t just about the Palestinians. Already in 2010, his spokespeople claimed that Israel was blocking American efforts “to build a broad international coalition to address the Iranian nuclear program. Does anyone doubt that officials in the Biden Administration will seek to rejuvenate relations with Iran and the Iran Deal?

A version of this article first appeared in Pajama Media in 2010

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.
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