US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel Monday, marking a new phase of Arab-Israeli diplomacy for the Obama administration. For the first time in more than a year, Israelis and Palestinians will resume peace talks, albeit via a US mediator.
But just a day after US envoy George Mitchell got Palestinians to drop their demands for a full settlement freeze as a precondition to peace talks, Israel authorized 112 new housing units in the West Bank. Israel had promised a 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction -- excluding occupied East Jerusalem.
But its announcement Monday of the West Bank settlement construction, a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would drop his objection to indirect talks over the fresh construction in East Jerusalem, underscored the settlement issue’s thorny role in US attempts at progress over the past year.
“Joe Biden’s visit ushers in the second act of the Obama administration on the peace process, after having failed entirely on the first act,” says Gidi Grinstein, a member of the Israeli negotiations team at the Camp David peace talks in 2000. “The Obama administration has done a lot to earn the suspicion of Israelis.... Biden is faced with an uphill journey.”
The Associated Press quoted lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat as saying Israel's new settlement move could derail talks again. "If the Israeli government wants to sabotage Mitchell's efforts by taking such steps, let's talk to Mitchell about maybe not doing this (indirect talks) if the price is so high," Erekat said.
Mr. Grinstein said that the administration’s decision to publicly confront Israel on settlement expansion helped spur the worst diplomatic rift between the two allies in a generation. Now, only 42 percent of Israelis believe Obama supports their country and half believe he’s weak on terrorism, according to a poll commissioned by the New America Foundation.
On top of anger over Obama's earlier call for a settlement freeze, Israel is also seeking to push the US to take a tougher stance towards Iran and its nuclear program.
A key concern of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is that Western efforts won’t end Iran's nuclear program, leaving Israel to face the Islamic Republic on its own. Biden is expected to assure Israelis of US backing on Iran when he delivers an address at Tel Aviv University on Thursday.
His visit is expected to deliver the message, “America understands your fear,” says Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran based in Tel Aviv. “It’s to show that Washington and Jerusalem are getting closer on the nuclear issue.”
Anger that Obama himself hasn't visited
While Biden is the most senior member of the US administration to visit Israel, some here feel slighted that Obama himself has yet to visit – especially given his high-profile trip to Cairo last year.
“While we welcome Vice President Biden, as a longtime friend and supporter of Israel, we see it (as) nothing short of an insult that President Obama is not coming,” said Parliament Member Danny Danon – a member of Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. “He is apparently unwilling to actually come and see firsthand the results of his disastrous policy of pressuring Israel into unilateral concessions to the Palestinians.”
Obama administration needs 'serious' results
Palestinian leaders aren’t happy either, and are expected to share with Biden during his West Bank visit their skepticism that the indirect peace talks expected to be renewed this week will produce results.
Palestinians supported President Abbas’s refusal to negotiate without a total settlement freeze. The announcement today by the Israeli Defense Ministry of additional homes in the settlement of Beitar Illit is likely to be interpreted as a sign of bad faith. Israel says that the homes, described as a safety measure to plug an alley between two buildings, were an exception to the 10-month moratorium agreed last fall.
The Palestinians will tell Biden that they have made good faith gestures like reining in militants and government reform, but that the Israel could do more on settlements, and lift movement restrictions. They’re also likely to stress that the talks need to show results in the four month trial period decided upon this week, said experts.
“Something serious must come out of it – and not going back to a peace process without an end,” says Hana Sinora, codirector of the Israel Palestinian Center for Research and Information. “If nothing happens, the credibility of the Obama administration will be completely shot.”