Biden visit lightens the mood, can’t heal dysfunctional ties

VP reaffirmed his ‘love’ for Netanyahu, scolded the Palestinians, but the White House was spot on with its advance word that the trip would bring no breakthrough

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US Vice President Joe Biden waves goodbye as he boards the Air Force 2 at Ben Gurion Airport on his way to Amman, March 10, 2016 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
US Vice President Joe Biden waves goodbye as he boards the Air Force 2 at Ben Gurion Airport on his way to Amman, March 10, 2016 (Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

US Vice President Joe Biden’s whirlwind visit to Israel was full of convivial gestures but did very little in the way of fixing the fraught relationship between Jerusalem and the White House.

His meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu Wednesday morning was “friendly, cordial and warm,” officials in Jerusalem told reporters. The tone the two leaders struck in their public statements indeed sounded notably affectionate. Almost as if there had never been a crisis between Jerusalem and Washington. Quite a contrast with the picture of ties that emerged, a day later, from the Atlantic’s major piece on President Barack Obama, with its references to Obama’s disappointment with Netanyahu, the PM’s condescending lectures, and the president’s critique of Israeli paralysis on the peace front.

“I hope you feel at home here in Israel because the people of Israel consider the Biden family part of our family. You’re part of our mishpucha,” Netanyahu said. Obama has yet to hear such endearing terms from the prime minister.

Biden responded in kind, saying he and “Bibi” are “close friends” and recalling how he once told him, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”

In their private meeting, Netanyahu and Biden discussed a wide range of topics. According to the PMO, the agenda covered: Islamic State and Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war; weapons smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon; efforts to reach a detente with Turkey; the construction of a regional natural gas pipeline; security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and ongoing Palestinian incitement.

Strangely absent from that published list was negotiation over the Memorandum of Understanding that regulates US military aid to Israel. According to various subsequent leaks, the vice president urged Netanyahu to accept the administration’s current offer, which would mark a significant increase — from about $3 billion per year to something closer to $4 billion. Don’t think that waiting for the next president is going to get you a better deal, Biden is said to have warned. Don’t forget the US is under budgetary strains itself and will have to cut its own defense budget.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with United States Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden's official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a joint press conference with United States Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2016, during Biden’s official visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

But Netanyahu resisted. Israel is reportedly hoping for an annual package of about $5 billion, but it is unclear whether the prime minister really believes that a different White House would make a better offer, or if he is merely holding off for a little longer to squeeze another few million out of Washington. Whatever they may do in the US, headlines about Israel’s tough negotiating position do not hurt Netanyahu at home.

It’s easy to be cynical over Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the offered spike in US military aid. Israel is getting more money from the US than any other country in the world; don’t be too greedy and don’t be an ingrate, critics are arguing.

But the MOU is designed to fully answer Israel’s security needs, which have undeniably increased, drastically, in part as a direct result of the Iran nuclear deal. The administration repeated ad nauseam its commitment to Israel’s security as that deal took shape, and when Israel warned that the pact would flush billions into the pockets of a regime bent on destroying the Jewish state, Washington promised that it would take good care of its closest ally in the region.

While it is probably a good idea to sign a new MOU before Obama leaves office — who knows whether a President Donald J. Trump would be as generous? — accepting the first offer made is usually not the best negotiating strategy.

On the other hand, it is ironic that the very same Benjamin Netanyahu who is now fighting for a spike in US aid once called for its reduction.

“I believe there can be no greater tribute to America’s longstanding economic aid to Israel than for us to be able to say: We are going to achieve economic independence,” Netanyahu told a joint session of the US Congress on July 10, 1996. “We are going to do it. In the next four years, we will begin the long-term process of gradually reducing the level of your generous economic assistance to Israel. I am convinced that our economic policies will lay the foundation for total self-reliance and great economic strength.”

To be fair, that speech 20 years ago referred to “economic aid” as opposed to military assistance. But someone holding out for $5 billion a year cannot claim to be en route to “total self-reliance.”

The current discussion over the MOU, and Netanyahu’s unwillingness to accept the proposal on the table, was reportedly behind the prime minister’s unprecedented decision to spurn Obama’s invitation for a meeting later this month in the White House — a meeting the PM had asked for. Maybe Netanyahu is waiting for a better MOU offer and suspects a “take it or leave it” ultimatum would have been waiting for him in the Oval Office.

Biden’s friendly visit — during which he aimed some tough words in missile-testing Iran’s direction — helps Netanyahu argue that his agitation against the Iran deal caused no permanent damage to bilateral ties. But Washington may yet ask for something return. The warm approach by Biden in no way precludes a US-backed Palestine-related resolution at the UN Security Council, or other initiatives unwanted in Jerusalem.

Condemnations of terror, and the lack thereof

Some right-wing pundits on Wednesday snarked that Biden, when he visits Israel, is more disturbed by a few new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem — a reference to his 2010 trip, when Jerusalem announced the expansion of the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood — than by the gruesome murder of an American citizen. But that observation was not merely cynical; it was unfounded.

Arriving in the midst of a Palestinian terror spree, Biden did what politicians do in such situations: they condemn terror attacks “in the strongest possible terms.” But then Biden went one step further. He condemned “the failure to condemn” acts of terrorism, obviously fingering Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “This cannot be viewed by civilized leaders as an appropriate way in which to behave even if it appears to inure to the benefit of one side or the other. It’s just not tolerable in the 21st century.”

Security forces and and medics at the scene of a stabbing attack that killed one and injured nine others in Jaffa on March 8, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Security forces and and medics at the scene of a stabbing attack that killed one and injured nine others in Jaffa on March 8, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Biden’s strong criticism of Ramallah could only have been reinforced by the fact that his wife and grandchildren were dining “not very far” from where US citizen Taylor Force was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa on Tuesday evening. Biden himself was meeting nearby with former president Shimon Peres, as the ambulances wailed outside. The vice president’s family was doubtless surrounded by a ring of bodyguards, but knowing that his loved ones were in the vicinity of a bloodbath plainly made an impact.

“I don’t know exactly whether it’s 100 meters or 1,000 meters (from where his family were), and it just brings home that it can happen. It can happen anywhere at any time,” he said hours later.

But the Palestinian leader was not moved. During his Wednesday night meeting with Biden, Abbas expressed “condolences” over the visiting American army vet’s death, but refused to condemn the attack or the killer. Rather, he blamed the “occupation authorities” for the ongoing violence. Underlining his stance, earlier this week, Abbas wrote a letter in praise of Amani Husni Sabatin, who on Friday was killed as she tried to run over a soldier with her car, calling her “a martyr who watered the pure earth of Palestine with her blood.”

The White House had stated ahead of the Biden visit that it was not intended or expected to yield any dramatic breakthroughs. According to some, unconfirmed reports, Biden did pitch a peace offer to Abbas — but if so, it was spurned. And so the vice president came, condemned, urged others to condemn, and left.

As before his arrival, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process does not exist. Ties with the PA are poor. And despite the cordial gestures, relations between the Israeli government and the US administration remain dysfunctional.

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