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Opinion: Israel’s insult adds injury to its own security

US still a friend, but "ill-timed" Jewish settlement announcement a boost for Israel's enemies.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill and Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L) pose with U.S. Army soldiers and Israeli soldiers before Biden's departure from Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv March 11, 2010. Biden called on Thursday for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to start without delay despite Palestinian insistence that Israel first cancel a settlement project condemned by Washington. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

BOSTON — It would be hard to imagine a greater insult to the Obama administration than announcing a large new housing development for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was flying in to help start up stalled peace talks. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deplored the timing of the announcement, but not the content. He quickly made it clear that he had no intention of rescinding it.

Of course it was said that Netanyahu didn’t know, that his interior minister didn’t know, that it was the work of the rightest of right wing Shas party, that the announcement just slipped into the cracks between coalition partners, and so forth.

Not everyone was buying it. Yossi Sarid, writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, said: “Don’t believe Benjamin Netanyahu for one minute when he says he ‘never knew.’ The Jerusalem planning committee is only too aware of what the bosses want.”

And what they want in East Jerusalem is “dispossession, taking possession, kicking out and moving in,” wrote Sarid, a columnist and former member of the liberal wing of the Knesset.

Alon Liel, former director of the Israeli foreign office, was willing to give Netanyahu a bit more benefit of the doubt. He told The Wall Street Journal that the announcement was the work of underlings who “do not care about the peace process, who would like to embarrass Netanyahu in order to slow down the process.”

It is becoming ever more clear, however, that Netanyahu is a great deal more interested in the peace process than he is about actually achieving peace. Keeping a process going helps keep the Americans and the Europeans off his back. But Netanyahu’s game has always been to appear open to peace with the Palestinians, and open to negotiations, but to make conditions where an agreement is never reached and make that look like the fault of the Palestinians.

Relations between the Obama administration and Israel have never been great. Polls showed that Israel was one of the few countries that did not welcome Obama’s presidency. One of Biden’s purposes was to restart a chemistry between Jerusalem and Washington that has been sorely lacking. He has now ended up condemning Israel’s new settlements in strong language.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, essentially gave Israel a green light for what ever it wanted to do to the Palestinians. It was an impossible act for Obama to follow if he was going to bring an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.

The stakes are high. As British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in Boston on Wednesday, the Palestinian-Israeli standoff is the “greatest recruiting sergeant ” Al Qaeda has. A workable settlement of the Palestinian question wouldn’t bring an end to terrorism, but it would very much cut the legs out from under its appeal.

As I have written before in this space, Obama went eye-ball-to-eye-ball with Netanyahu when Obama called for a complete settlement freeze in the occupied territories, but Obama blinked first.