Joe Biden gives Israel bear hug – and tough love

Israel is America's closest friend, US Vice President Joe Biden said in an emotional speech at Tel Aviv University today. But he also said sometimes it takes a friend to deliver the hardest truth – that the status quo is untenable.

Bernat Armangue/AP
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Tel Aviv Univeristy Thursday. Biden repeatedly voiced Washington's commitment to Israel's security, trying to allay any concerns it might have. But he also said an end to the conflict would restore to the Palestinians "the fundamental dignity and self-respect that their current predicament denies them."
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Despite two days of public friction between the US and Israel over a Jerusalem building project, Vice President Joe Biden today delivered an emotional speech laden with admiration for the Jewish state.

Some years ago "I said if I was Jew, I would be a Zionist," Biden said, telling the audience at Tel Aviv University of his affinity for Israel since childhood. "I was reminded by my father you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist."

Those remarks, given at the tail end of Biden's five-day trip to the region, were part of a big American bear hug unparalleled since the Bush administration – and sure to raise question marks throughout the Arab world about the ability of the US to be a neutral mediator in peace talks. But they were primary aimed at bolstering the leverage of the administration of President Barack Obama to push Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make politically difficult choices on peace negotiations with the Palestinians and on confronting Iran.

"Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth,'' said Biden, adding that he and President Obama know that the US has no better friend than Israel. "The status quo is untenable."

Biden: Israel's status as both Jewish and democratic at risk

Biden issued successive blunt condemnations of Israel's plans to build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, a project unveiled during his visit. Israel's decision, in the face of US opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories, was widely described as a "humiliation" for Biden in the Israeli and foreign press.

On Wednesday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said President Mahmoud Abbas would not enter the US sponsored "proximity talks'' before the plan was canceled. Netanyahu apologized for the announcement, which was made by the Interior Ministry, saying building would not become a reality for years.

US-Israel relations under Obama got off to a rocky start, with Israeli leaders bristling at the US request for a settlement freeze as a confidence building measure for peace talks with the Palestinians. Israel was also skeptical about the US policy of engaging the Iranian government in negotiations on its nuclear program.

Biden expressed sympathy with the fears Israelis have of Palestinian rocket barrages and the threat of a nuclear Iran. "We get it,'' he said of Israel's anxiety about Iran's nuclear program.

But he also tried to prod public opinion. He warned Israelis that their vision of a state both Jewish and democratic was endangered by the absence of peace. He warned that Israel's security barrier that cordons off Palestinian areas in the West Bank is only a temporary balm and not a long-term solution.

Despite emotional resonance, Israelis unconvinced by Biden

But it is unclear whether Biden's comments resonated on an emotional and a political level with Israelis, who have shifted to the right politically since Obama was elected, according to polls.

"From an emotional Israeli point of view [the speech] was a resounding success,'' said Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Adelson Center for Strategic Studies.

He added however, that many Israelis don’t share Biden's optimism about the prospects for successful negotiations because of past failures.

"I sense that Israelis were not convinced about the two most important points that Biden tried to convey: The first is that Israelis don't believe that this administration has the resolve to stop Iran at any cost. The second is that Israelis don't believe that the Palestinian leadership is prepared to compromise.''

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