Biden’s Israel speech: not a game changer

 So did Vice President Joe Biden accomplish his top goal during this week’s Israel visit – reassuring a skeptical Israeli public about the Obama administration’s intentions while also reassuring the Palestinians that the administration is still determined to play a role in bringing the two sides back together for serious peace talks?

Reading the text, it seems to me Biden’s speech writers were extremely careful to hit on all the key reassurance points  – reaffirming an “unbreakable bond” between Israel and the United States that  is “impervious to any shifts in either country and in either country’s partisan politics,”  promising the administration won’t allow Israel to go nuclear, attacking continuing “incitement” against the Jewish state, citing the long connection between Jews and the land of Israel.

That, they undoubtedly hoped, would make Biden’s relatively harsh criticism of the latest Jerusalem housing decision – he said the announcement of 1600 new housing units in an East Jerusalem neighborhood was  “precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel” –  easier to swallow and harder for critics to use as just more proof the Obama administration secretly hates the Jewish state.

It was well done; it reflected a genuine commitment to Israel by this administration, as well as a determination not to get into a squabble with a government there that doesn’t share the President’s vision of how a peace process should proceed; and it probably won’t make a lot of difference.

In Israel, opponents of any new peace talks won’t be swayed by anything Biden could or did say, and it’s hard to see how it will change a political situation that gives prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu very little wiggle room – assuming, of course, that he wants to do any wiggling.

The Palestinians have been dragged into new, indirect, low-key, low-expectations “proximity talks,” but the speech won’t do anything to improve the quality of Palestinian leadership, or change their expectations that somehow, some way, Washington will carry the ball for them in dealing with Israel.

The housing announcement, for all their protests, may  have been exactly what some Palestinian leaders wanted – something to promote strong U.S. action to change Israeli behavior. But if that’s what they’re counting on, they should prepare for disappointment. I just don’t see this administration – beset at home, with numerous other foreign policy issues on its plate – investing too much in this scaled-back peace process.

What about the Israeli public? Well, it’s bitterly divided on a whole range of issues involving peace negotiations; it’s not likely nice words from the second in command in Washington will change any of that.

Still, the peace will probably reassure some Israelis in the shrinking political center, and it was probably a good thing in terms of the administration’s dealing with Jewish voters here. But since there’s no hard evidence administration support had slipped dramatically – or at least as much as it has with the public at large – that’s just not a big  factor.

So, bottom line: good speech, nice reassurance – though it would have sounded a lot better coming from Obama himself – but not something that’s going to  change the playing field very much.

On the other hand, hardened by a year of disappointments, many self-inflicted, I don’t think the administration’s expectations were that great to begin with.

Meanwhile, here are two very different takes on Biden’s criticism of the housing decision. ADL leader Abe Foxman calls the decision a “disaster” in this Huffington Post piece.

But ZOA’s Mort Klein rakes Biden , saying the administration’s position’s policies on Jerusalem are “racist.”


About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.