WASHINGTON (JTA) — U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s attempt to reassure Israel of American steadfastness survived a steadfast Middle East tradition of self-sabotage.
Biden’s intended message in a much ballyhooed speech Thursday — that the United States would stand by Israel in thick and thin — was unequivocal. Yet it was clear that he and his speechwriters tweaked the text to encompass references to the Israeli settlement building and Palestinian incitement that almost marred his trip.
Biden started by reaffirming the "unbreakable bond" between Israel and the United States, as he had following his arrival earlier this week. The bond was "impervious to any shifts in either country and in either country’s partisan politics," he said to applause.
He added that it was critical for the international community to understand the bond.
"Every time progress is made, it’s been made when the rest of the world knows there’s no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security, none — no space," the vice president said.
Biden’s speech was an opening salvo in rolling back Israeli and Jewish insecurities stoked by President Obama’s speech last summer to the Muslim world.
Jewish community leaders in the United States and some Israeli leaders were unsettled by Obama’s sharp parallels in that speech between Israeli and Palestinian suffering. And some objected to how Obama emphasized the sequence of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel. The concerns were exacerbated a few weeks later when Obama met with the Jewish leadership and said he would make public disagreements with Israel.
The White House, which insisted Obama had emphasized the Holocaust to scold the Arab world for allowing its denial to flourish, was frustrated by Jewish unhappiness with a speech that was supposed to have been about outreach to Arabs and Muslims — a point that Biden made in his remarks Thursday.
"We’re absolutely convinced this approach will improve not only our security but, as a result, your security," Biden said of outreach to the Muslim world.
Nonetheless, it was clear that Biden took care to hit all the marks that Obama missed in his Cairo speech.
"Incitement against Israel continues, as do the attacks on the legitimacy of Jewish ties to this ancient land," he said, a deliberate nod to Israeli anger that Obama had not referred to the Holy Land’s Jewish religious roots in his Cairo address.
Earlier in the speech, Biden recalled his working-class Irish-Catholic dad "who often spoke passionately about the special connection between the Jewish people and this land."
Biden also mentioned Israel’s high-tech sector, a point of national pride, and recognized those in the university audience who had "made aliyah." He underscored increased military cooperation between Israel and the United States under Obama, particularly in the area of missile testing. U.S. officials have wondered why the improving military relations have not made as many headlines as the heated rhetorical exchanges over settlements.
The Netanyahu government has done its part in citing the closeness — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned it Tuesday after his meeting with Biden, and U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren brings it up repeatedly.
Stephen P. Cohen, a former Princeton University scholar who is close to the Obama administration and helped draft the Cairo speech, said Biden’s speech was not the last word on U.S. closeness to Israel.
"The parallel to the Cairo speech will eventually come from the president himself at the right time," said Cohen, who has just authored "Beyond America’s Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East."
"There has been a good deal of talk that Obama has put a lot of emphasis on the Holocaust as a predisposing element in the creation of the State of Israel. I think this is an important addition to that thinking," he said, referring to the Biden speech, "a correction to that thinking."
Most pronouncedly, Biden earned applause when he said that Iran must not achieve nuclear weapons capability.
"The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period," he said. "I know that for Israel, there is no greater existential strategic threat. Trust me, we get that."
Notably, however, Biden only spoke of Iran’s isolation and did not include the "all options on the table" euphemism for the possibility of military engagement. Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have used the phrase, and Israel still favors it, most recently in a New York speech by Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, the Israeli military chief of staff.
Biden was forced into detours from his prepared remarks by Israel’s announcement this week that it had authorized 1,600 housing starts in disputed eastern Jerusalem.
"That decision undermined the trust required for negotiations," he said, and under instructions from President Obama, "I condemned it immediately and unequivocally." He added, to applause: "Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."
Biden seemed galled, especially that Israel made the announcement while he was meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — Palestinian leaders deemed moderate both by Israel and the United States.
"Israeli leaders finally have willing partners who share the goal of peace between two states and have the competence to establish a nation," he said.
"Their commitment to peace is an opportunity that must be seized. It must be seized. Who has there been better to date, to have the prospect of settling this with? But instead, two days ago the Israeli government announced it would advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem."
Biden accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that he also had been blindsided by the announcement by his Interior Ministry. The minister, Eli Yishai, has apologized both for the timing and for not giving Netanyahu a heads up; speculation was rife on both sides of the Atlantic as to what had happened.
The committee making the announcement is jointly run by the Jerusalem municipality and Yishai’s ministry. Both Yishai’s haredi Shas Party and the Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, have been known for their attempts to make political inroads into Netanyahu’s right flank.
In any case, the gaffe had U.S. officials and some in the pro-Israel community wondering whether Netanyahu was fully in control of his government.
The Palestinian Authority also barely averted a PR disaster: It canceled a ceremony to honor a woman who led the 1978 hijacking of a bus in which 35 Israelis were killed. A traffic circle in Ramallah was supposed to be named for Dalal Mughrabi and a memorial plaque unveiled Thursday, according to reports. The event was canceled Wednesday to avoid antagonizing Biden, according to reports.
Cohen wondered whether such events were instigated by hard-liners who thrived on isolation. In Israel, he said, there has been a view among some right-wingers that Jews and Israelis "are too vulnerable to our need to be loved."