A Resoundingly Ill-Timed Accident in Jerusalem?

05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Israel's announcement of a new or renewed massive building project in East Jerusalem occurred earlier on the same day that Vice President Joseph Biden was to meet with the Israeli president and prime minister. This synchronicity can in no way be dismissed as happenstance or as a resoundingly bad-timing accident. It was intentional, and it was intended to deflate the significance of discussions with a man who has long been the most uncompromising pro-Israel figure in the Obama administration and one of the staunchest supporters of Israel in the Democratic Party and in the United States Congress.

What were they thinking?

I do not believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to stick his thumb in Biden's eye; however, I do believe that this incident shows that what Netanyahu wants is not necessarily decisive for some of his most important ministers. Netanyahu understands that he must work with President Obama on advancing the negotiations with the Palestinians. He would privately admit that he even wants these negotiations to avert his second term as prime minister ending with the same sense of abject failure as his first.

Nevertheless, Israeli Ministers Yishai and Lieberman are determined to prevent a revival of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even though Netanyahu must realize at this point that he can no longer be passive and permissive about the actions and decisions of his more extreme ministers. If he remains silent and inactive in face of these actions, he will have forfeited his leadership. In addition, it would then no longer be reasonable for the United States to adhere to its policy that it must work with Netanyahu, rather than look to the realignment of his government or simply await his fall from power.

When the Israeli government alienates such an unflinching friend and ally as Vice President Biden, it strongly suggests that there is an element in Israel that cannot abide the desire of most Israelis and most American Jews for Israel to be a full member in good standing of the Western alliance and a respected state in the family of nations. That element would prefer to see an Israel that stands defiantly alone. It wants to defeat the majority consciousness that seeks a place of pride and independence for Israel and to replace it with a counter-dependent Israel that will never be attracted to agreeing to anything that is initiated from outside its narrowly-defined cognitive boundary. Any such agreement, even with friends, smells too much like assimilation and arouses anachronistic fears of loss of identity through becoming close to anyone outside or inculcating outsider ideas.

Theodor Herzl Zionism explicitly rejected such fears by espousing the idea that an independent, sovereign Jewish state could live as an equal with other sovereign states, including those most advanced in science and freedom of thought. This Jewish state would no longer need to fear that the other states might became hostile to Jewish aspirations or might overwhelm Jewish culture, religion, and political independence.

Prime Minister Netanyahu in the last weeks, beginning with his surprising speech at the Herzliya conference, set out to show that he was committed to strengthening Israeli nationalist consciousness while moving towards peace with the Palestinians and with the Arab world.

Some of his ministers are distorting his meaning by conflating strengthening national consciousness with a radical isolationism. They manifest a fear that Israel's identity would be lost by conducting peaceful relations not only with Israel's own regional environment, but with democratic countries abroad, even with those that have been most important to the emergence of the State of Israel, its military strength and its security in the community of nations.

Netanyahu must show unequivocally that this is not what he intended. He must assert his leadership by demonstrating in word and deed that the pursuit of peace and the strengthening of national consciousness are not simply consistent, but are mutually necessary.

Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, is the author of Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East.