For those fond of the script that has come to define the American-Israeli joint press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the White House on Wednesday did not disappoint.
In remarks before his meeting with Netanyahu, President Obama spoke of Israel's precarious perch in a "very turbulent neighborhood" and mentioned again "the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel." In turn, Netanyahu thanked the president for his "unflinching support" and rhapsodized about Israel and America's "continuous bond of friendship."
But for the second time during a high-level visit, a deviation from the sacred script undermined the entire meeting. Just ahead of the visit, the left-leaning Israeli group Peace Now announced that last week Israel had approved plans for over 2,500 homes in majority Arab East Jerusalem. And hours after President Obama had once again plugged America's "unbreakable bond" with Israel, White House spokesman Josh Earnest scolded Israel in unusually harsh terms.
"This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere, not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations."
Back in 2010, Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Israel was overshadowed by a similar announcement. Hours after Biden reiterated American support for Israel's security, building plans for 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem were announced.
That time, the flank came from the right by Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Netanyahu publicly chided Yishai, but the damage had been very visibly done. Biden responded by saying that the announcement “runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.”
This phenomenon extends beyond the White House. Last year, ahead of one of Secretary of State John Kerry's many visits to Israel, another round of East Jerusalem building was announced as Kerry was seeking to jumpstart the recent unsuccessful round of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
In January, a settlement announcement was deliberately held until Kerry finished a regional visit. During the peace talks themselves, Netanyahu often coupled public statements about new settlements with the release of Palestinian prisoners, a domestically unpopular precondition for the negotiations.
Part of what makes these unscheduled announcements of new settlements particularly difficult for Netanyahu is that they force him to defiantly defend a policy that is internationally unpopular and directly at odds with Washington's preferred strategy. For weeks after the 2010 Biden visit, Netanyahu defended the Israeli building in East Jerusalem, including a speech at AIPAC in which he proclaimed that "Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital."
On Thursday, Netanyahu, who had sought to push the president to take a harder line on Iran's nuclear program, responded to the latest White House critique. "I don’t understand that criticism and I can't accept that position." He added, "It is better to know the material before deciding to take such a stance."
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