Why Israel Slapped Biden With Surprise Settlement Plan

1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem

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Some were skeptical of Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Israel before his plane even left the ground--they doubted the avuncular VP's ability to carry out the mission with reassurance and delicacy. But the biggest embarrassment of the trip so far hasn't come from Biden's side. The Israeli government provocatively announced new settlements in East Jerusalem while Biden was in the city to jump-start peace talks. American commentators interpret this as a humiliating slap, though some argue it's a misstep for the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims not to have known the announcement was coming because it was decided by a Jerusalem planning committee. Is that true? What could those in charge possibly have been thinking?

  • Who Knows--It's a Terrible Idea  Uri Dromi for The International  Herald-Tribune thinks there's something worse than the bad diplomacy: "By expanding settlements instead of separating from the Palestinians while we still can, we Israelis are dooming ourselves to lose the Jewish and democratic state that has been won with so much sacrifice." If settlements make the eventual separation of states impossible, Palestinians will have to be granted Israeli citizenship and voting rights, where their higher birth rate will quickly move them to majority status. Juan Cole agrees at his blog: "The Palestinians cannot be left stateless ... forever. If they can't have Palestinian citizenship, then they'll have to have Israeli citizenship."
  • Netanyahu Knew About It  Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed he was unaware of the move, which was the decision of a "Jerusalem district planning committee." The Guardian Simon Tisdall says this is possible,  "but the announcement was promulgated by his interior ministry ... If Netanyahu did not know, then why not?" At the very least, it's "hard to credit" interior minister Eli Yishai's "protestations of innocence." Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell agrees that claim, at least, "doesn't pass the laugh test."
  • Old Trick for Political Gain   Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post says this is a tried-and-true tactic for the Israeli right, and that Biden should have seen it coming: "The ambushing of high-level American visitors to Jerusalem via the announcement of new settlements is a tried-and-true tactic of Israeli hardliners seeking to derail peace negotiations. It dates back at least to the early 1990s." Reihan Salam at The Daily Beast argues that "The move will enhance the nationalist 'street cred' of its architects." 
  • Contempt  The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan takes the news as evidence that he's "not imagining these things"; Israel really does have a "'Go Cheney Yourself' policy on the peace process," and a "contemptuous attitude toward the US."
  • Uncontroversial, Actually  "Ramat Shlomo is a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that already has more than 20,000 residents," protests Israeli blogger Carl in Jerusalem. "[It] was in no-man's land before 1967" and "was never supposed to be an issue with the 'Palestinians.'"
  • Israeli Independence Theater, Political Incompetence, Coincidence  Haaretz's Bradley Burston acknowledges the political profit for the "hard right," and says the move "mines an emotional vein along a relatively small but potent segment of the Israeli electorate, which holds that to insult Israel's indispensible ally is to assert the Jewish state's independence." It's about "expung[ing] any trace of ... groveling to the colonial master." That said, Burston is believes the move is stupid and unhelpful.
Chalk it up, if you like, to the powerful pro-settler presence in certain strata of Israel's bureaucracy. Or credit the mercurial, not to say, erratic, policy style of Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak. Or accept the official explanation that the timing of the decision was coincidence, entirely unconnected with the vice-presidential visit.

In the anarchic swirl of current Israeli governance, the correct answer may well be: all three.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.