When Joe Biden touched down in Tel Aviv on March 8, there was no indication that his visit would set off the most serious crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in decades. The U.S. vice president arrived carrying the text of an effusively pro-Israel speech that was meant to assure skittish Israelis that the Obama administration would remain as committed as any of its predecessors to their security. Such an assurance, the administration evidently believed, was essential if the United States was to persuade the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove settlements from the West Bank in order to make way for a Palestinian state.
But Biden’s plans were soon upended. On March 9, a mid-level official in Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the approval of the fourth stage in a seven-part approval process for the construction of 1,600 residential units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Geographically, Ramat Shlomo is in north Jerusalem, within the city’s municipal boundaries, and successive Israeli governments have insisted that they would never relinquish these areas in any final settlement with the Palestinians. But because the neighborhood lies across the Green Line (which separates pre-1967 Israel from those territories captured in the Six-Day War), it is widely seen by non-Israelis as being part of East Jerusalem, the side of the city envisioned as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Biden wasted no time in condemning the announcement, although he was also quick to accept Netanyahu’s apology for its timing.
Less forgiving, however, were Biden’s principal counterparts in the administration. On March 12, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu “to make clear the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” according to Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley. And the president himself reportedly gave Netanyahu the chilliest of receptions when they met in the White House the following week.
Sundry pundits and policy experts are cheering this turn