Biden's Embarrassment and Hillary's Rage: Part of a Staged Effort to Push Israel Away?

05/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is it just me, or does anyone else think last week's drama surrounding Vice President Joe Biden's supposed "embarrassment" and Hillary Clinton's rage over an Israeli decision to build 1600 apartments in East Jerusalem seems manufactured?

I have struggled mightily and sincerely to keep an open mind, and my respect for the Presidency--as well as my sincere hope that President Obama will do the right things vis a vis U.S. security and U.S. allies--have prevented me from being too critical of him thus far about anything, including foreign policy. But last week's brouhaha struck me as unfair towards Israel. It also struck me initially as downright weird, and given deeper thought, as potentially ominous.

At the center of the controversy is the decision--announced by a bureaucratic entity, Israel's Interior Ministry--to approve construction of 1,600 new homes for Israelis in East Jerusalem. This announcement, which was made during Vice President Biden's visit to discuss the "peace process," unleashed a tsunami of anger and reprimand by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and VP Biden towards Israel. Or so we are to believe.

In the name of diplomatic protocol, Clinton berated Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 45 minutes. Apparently, her words suggested that this announcement of apartment building construction in Israel's capital city threatens the U.S.-Israel relationship, because she not only called it "insulting" to the U.S., she used the opportunity to question Israel's commitment to its relationship with America.

Hmmm. Could there be some projection going on here?

For his part, Netanyahu apologized for the timing of the announcement. He said he had been surprised by the timing also. But he did not apologize for Israel's decision to build apartment buildings within its capital city.

Another thread in the drama concerned U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who was said to have been gravely "embarrassed" by this announcement of building construction, to the point that he, too, rang up Bibi to express his mortification. (It's surprising, by the way, that if Biden were so embarrassed, he would voluntarily call so much attention his alleged embarrassment).

Is it credible that an Israeli announcement of building construction inflicted grave embarrassment on Biden? Or does it strike anyone as more likely that this claim is manufactured - as is this "crisis?"

For starters, these apartment buildings are not settlements in some disputed outpost. They are to be built in Jerusalem. Granted, in East Jerusalem, which is largely Arab. But the units are to be located in Ramat Shlomo, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Apparently Ramat Shlomo is next to French Hill, a neighborhood of apartment buildings in Jerusalem where I stayed for a month when I visited Israel during college. Having spent quite a bit of time there, I can say it is no remote outpost, but squarely in the heart of Jerusalem.

Since when does Israel have no right to announce the building of apartment houses in its capital? Since when does any country have to get clearance to build on its sovereign territory?

It's true that Palestinians envision East Jerusalem as their capital city some day. But for now, and until Palestinians, including Palestinian leadership, demonstrate they want peace, East Jerusalem is not under their control. East Jerusalem is Israel. There is nothing illegal about building apartment buildings there. (Incidentally, I can entirely believe Netanyahu did not know about the timing of the announcement; as anyone who has spent time in Israel knows, it is a socialist state where almost any enterprise involves red tape and bureaucracy. It is not a stretch to imagine that Netanyahu had no idea when exactly this building project was scheduled to break ground, much less when it was going to be announced).

More significantly, last fall, in discussions with Netanyahu over settlement construction, President Obama accepted a limited 10-month moratorium that did not include the East Jerusalem area where the construction announced this week is to take place. In other words, President Obama knew Israel might build in this area - and had accepted it. Clinton at the time characterized Israel's concessions as "unprecedented."

Thus it is the Obama Administration--not Netanyahu's government--that is reneging. The Obama Administration knew--and even explicitly agreed to--accept construction in the very area where these housing units are to be built. It is the Obama Administration that is pulling the rug out from under Israel--and trying to characterize it as the reverse.

This crisis seems like an excuse--and a flimsy one, at that--to put distance between the U.S. and Israel.

Why might the Obama Administration want to do that?

The white elephant in the room is Iran. Sadly, it is appearing likely that, at least while Obama is in office, Israel will stand alone in the face of this existential threat.

I do not want to make too much of one incident, or to jump to conclusions. As an American, I believe that this great country would not abandon or turn on a small ally in a time of great need. I have faith in the U.S. Congress, which reflects the solid moral instincts of the American people. But this wedge between the Obama Administration and Netanyahu's is concerning.

Given its highly staged quality, it could be a sham designed to fool Iran's radical leadership into thinking there is a rift between the U.S. and Israel so that the U.S. can in fact support regime change in Iran more effectively, without incurring suspicion. Or, similarly, if it could be a decoy to lull Iran's radical leadership into thinking the U.S. would never participate in military action to produce regime change in Iran, when in fact the latter is actually a possibility.

Recently I shared these theories with Iraqi Parliamentarian Mithal al-Alusi, one of my best sources in Iraq. Mr. Alusi's only two sons were murdered by terrorists after he visited the Jewish state, and he--refusing to be intimidated--stayed in Iraq and built a political party championing human rights. He characterizes Israel as "a modern state and an important part of the middle east" and believes it is in Iraq's security interest cooperate with Israel on counter-terrorism and other issues.

He is interested in not only Israeli/Iraqi alliance but also Iraqi alliance with other democracies including the U.S., Turkey, and Jordan. A practical man, he sees no benefit in maintaining what he terms the "Israel complex"--or the obsession with hating Israel that he thinks ultimately holds many Arab countries back from true progress.

Although we were speaking about other matters (he has been consumed with the Iraqi provincial elections, in which he is running as an incumbent), we took a break to discuss this diplomatic crisis. I asked him if he thought this flap could be staged - to pacify radical elements in the Arab world. If so, could it indicate that, behind the scenes, the U.S. is preparing to take a tougher stand against against Iran, or at least to support Israel in defending itself?

"Not likely," Alusi said. "Why would America need to do that?"

He pointed out that many Arab countries--all those that are considered comparatively more moderate including Jordan, Turkey, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, and Iraq--are afraid of Iran and would not object to the U.S. and Israel preventing Tehran from getting nuclear weapons. Mr. Alusi believes instead that this action reflects President Obama's world view, and his desire to appease Iran by "bringing them closer." Mr. Alusi qualified his thoughts by saying he hopes he is wrong.

So do I.