WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged “overwhelming frustration” with Israel’s government on Monday and said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has led the country in the wrong direction, in an unusually sharp rebuke of America’s closest ally in the Middle East.
There is no will for peace among Palestinian and Israeli political leadership, Biden bemoaned during J Street’s annual gala Monday evening. Painting a dim picture of a conflict that is becoming increasingly intractable, the vice president stressed that the United States would maintain its security support for Israel through an extensive defense aid package delineated in a renewed Memorandum of Understanding.
“I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past the past several years — the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures — they’re moving us and more importantly they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction,” Biden said.
He said those policies were moving Israel toward a “one-state reality” — meaning a single state for Palestinians and Israelis in which eventually, Israeli Jews will no longer be the majority.
“That reality is dangerous,” Biden added.
“I didn’t come away from my recent meetings with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu or President [Mahmoud] Abbas feeling encouraged about the prospect for peace in the near future,” Biden recounted. “There is no will for peace,” he added, asserting that “the trust that is necessary for peace is fractured on both sides.”
Biden cited unilateral recourse to international organizations such as the International Criminal Court on the part of the Palestinians and Israeli settlement policies as “damaging moves that only take us further from the path toward peace.” Biden noted that he has “opposed settlements for more than three decades because I believe they are counterproductive to security,” and took pride in recounting a shouting match on the topic between himself and former prime minister Menachem Begin.
“Both sides have to take responsibility for counterproductive steps that undermine confidence in negotiations,” Biden warned.
While seeming to despair of any real possibility for peace in the short term, Biden argued that “our common task now is to encourage meaningful steps that reduce tension while rebuilding a constituency for peace.”
In another dig at Netanyahu and his Likud party, Biden singled out for praise Stav Shaffir, a young member of Israel’s parliament and Netanyahu critic from the left wing of Israeli politics.
“May your views begin to once again become the majority opinion in the Knesset,” Biden said.
But despite his criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policies, Biden stressed that his administration’s support for Israel remained strong.
“No matter what political disagreements we have with Israel – and we do have political disagreements now – there is never any question about our commitment to Israel’s security,” Biden told the audience.
The United States and Israel are currently negotiating a new 10-year multibillion dollar agreement to provide defense assistance – and Biden argued that this renewed Memorandum of Understanding will be the most generous security package in the history of US aid to Israel.
“Israel will not get everything it asks for, but it will get every single solitary thing it needs,” he said, reiterating a talking point that he delivered during last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference.
In his address, Biden also singled out Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, for declining to condemn specific acts of terrorism carried out against Israelis, in a nod to the seven-month wave of Palestinian stabbings and other attacks. He said he didn’t know whether Monday’s bus explosion that wounded scores in Jerusalem was a terrorist attack, but added that the US condemns “misguided cowards” who resort to violence.
“No matter what legitimate disagreements the Palestinian people have with Israel, there is never justification for terrorism,” Biden said. “No leader should fail to condemn as terrorists those who commit such brutalities.”
Turning to Iran, and in a reference to a push by hawkish US lawmakers to renew the expiring Iran Sanctions Act, Biden also warned that “adding further sanctions legislation would be counterproductive at this point,” arguing that Iran would use such a move as an excuse to back out of the agreement.