When US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel Sunday for the highest level visit by a US official since President Barack Obama took office, it was all sunshine between him and his host and old friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr. Biden had arrived with a twofold mission. First was to goose efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which both sides had agreed to tentatively resume the day before.
But he was also there to reassure an Israeli public left skeptical by President Obama's decision to make a major speech in Cairo last year on a Mideast swing that did not include Israel of America's enduring friendship.
Sure, Israel had announced a small settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, something the US had opposed, on the eve of his visit. But Biden didn't appear overly concerned, and the next day he spoke at a press conference that left many Israeli officials euphoric.
Standing next to Prime Minister Netanyahu at a press conference on Tuesday, Vice President Biden assured him of America's amity.
“Bibi, you heard me say before, progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel,” Biden said. “There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. And for that reason, and many others, addressing Iran’s nuclear program has been one of our administration’s priorities.”
But that was practically the moment when the wheels came off the visit.
At about the same time on Tuesday that Biden was speaking, Israel announced it would build 1,600 new homes for ultra-orthodox Jews in East Jerusalem, an area Israel annexed after the 1967 six-day war, and which neither the US nor the rest of the international community has ever recognized as legally Israel's.
The euphoric mood quickly went downhill. Though Israel said the announcement had nothing to do with Biden's trip, many commentators said it would likely be taken that way by an Obama administration pushing for a full settlement freeze as a confidence-building step with Palestinians.
Sharp response across the political spectrum
Time Magazine wrote: "having been publicly humiliated by the Israeli announcement ... Biden made no secret of his pique."
"Netanyahu prides himself on his decades-long relationship with Biden, but managed to destroy it Tuesday night when Israel spat in the vice president's face," the influential intelligence and security columnist Avi Isacharoff wrote in Israel's left-leaning Haaretz newspaper. "(Defense Minister Ehud) Barak and Netanyahu's grave explanations, that they "didn't know," "didn't hear," didn't see" each time a new plan is approved for construction, (or on the flip side, demolition) in East Jerusalem - see Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and more - are dwarfed by the current embarrassment caused to the American administration."
Even the right-leaning and generally pro-settler Jerusalem Post described the settlement announcement as a blunder in an editorial.
After describing a visit that had gotten off to a dream start from the Israeli perspective, with Biden saying Israel had "captured my heart," the paper explained how the mood quickly soured. "In a staggering example of diplomatic obtuseness, the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem Regional Planning and Construction Commission announced the approval of 1,600 additional housing units in Ramat Shlomo ... inside the sovereign city limits, but squarely over the pre-1967 Green Line," it wrote. "Biden and his wife Jill arrived over an hour late to dinner with Netanyahu and his wife Sarah on Tuesday night. And when they finally did show up, they brought with them what constituted a major league castigation."
That may be so. But the big prize that Biden was dispatched to secure – restarted peace talks – seems secure for now. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was upset about the construction ahead of a meeting with Biden in Ramallah on the West Bank on Wednesday, but indicated that plans for resumed talks will go forward.
Still, the incident demonstrated the political clout the settler movement continues to wield in Israel and the hot-button issue of continuing Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians believe is an Israeli attempt to create facts on the ground that will deprive them of the place they eventually hope to place their capital.
Ynetnews, the English-language service of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's largest circulation Hebrew daily, carried a brief story this week illustrating that at least some of the ultra-orthodox settlers are not amenable to compromise.
Ynet described ultra-orthodox settlers in the still largely Palestinian East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah celebrating the Jewish holiday of Purim on March 1 with songs of praise for Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli settler who murdered 29 unarmed Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.
"Dr. Goldstein, there is none other like you in the world. Dr. Goldstein, we all love you … he aimed at terrorists' heads, squeezed the trigger hard, and shot bullets, and shot, and shot," Ynet reported.