JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama faces what may be the biggest test to date of his credibility in the Middle East after Israel greeted Vice President Joe Biden with an announcement that it will construct 1,600 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem, diplomats and analysts said Wednesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government said the announcement's timing wasn't intentional. However, Netanyahu also appears to be betting that he'll get little pushback from a U.S. president who's avoided public confrontation with Israel and is concentrating on building Democratic support on domestic issues such as health care.
What an Israeli newspaper called "The Slap Heard 'Round the World" brought sharp condemnation from Biden, who met Palestinians leaders in the West Bank on Wednesday.
However, the White House appeared eager to move on to just-announced indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israeli columnists predicted that Netanyahu would suffer little more than a diplomatic tap on the wrist.
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Aaron David Miller, who worked on Middle East issues for six secretaries of state and is now a fellow at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Obama would do best to move on after Tuesday's contretemps.
"The problem for Obama is that he has zero options on this one," Miller said. "He can't escalate" because East Jerusalem is non-negotiable to many Israelis. "He's going to lose." If Obama wants to pick a fight with Netanyahu, he should do it on a different issue, he said.
The greater problem is U.S. credibility, Miller said.
"Smaller powers are saying 'no' to bigger powers without cost and without consequences . . . . It is hurting his credibility."
The outlook for the "proximity talks" is now even more uncertain, U.S. officials and Arab diplomats said. Expectations were already low in view of Israel's position on Jewish settlements in disputed territories and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' weak political position.
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose office announced the construction plans, apologized over the timing of the announcement — but pointedly not over the plans to build in East Jerusalem, which was under Arab control until the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel considers it part of its capital.
"We had no intention, no desire, to offend or taunt an important man like the vice president during his visit," Yishai, a member of the right-wing Shas party and an outspoken supporter of the settler movement, told Israeli Radio. He added that "next time we will take timing into account."
Netanyahu aides said the prime minister was just as blindsided by the Interior Ministry's announcement as Biden was.
If that's true, it raises disturbing questions about Israeli politics and the political power of the country's pro-settlement movement, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator in a Labor Party government who's often critical of his country's current policies.
The settler movement is "deeply entrenched" in Israel's decision-making, said Levy, now at the Washington-based New America Foundation. "It is far more foreboding for the Israeli leader to challenge the settler movement and their political supporters . . . than it is foreboding to take on the U.S. administration. He has not yet seen there are consequences."
Obama has been viewed skeptically in Israel since his presidential campaign, and it hasn't helped, in many Israelis' eyes, that he hasn't visited the country as president, yet has engaged in extensive outreach to the Muslim world.
Israel rebuffed an early push by Obama and his Middle East envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, for a complete freeze on settlements, offering instead a limited halt that excluded East Jerusalem.
Biden's visit was aimed in part in shoring up the relationship, which also has been complicated by divergent assessments of how to stop Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. Biden concludes his trip Thursday with a speech in Tel Aviv on U.S.-Israeli relations.
Just days before Biden arrived, Israel's Defense Ministry announced the construction of 112 apartments in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit. Analysts said that move, unlike the one in East Jerusalem, appeared to violate Netanyahu's earlier settlement freeze pledge.
Abbas and Arab governments denounced Israel's announcement, saying it could set back the peace talks, embolden the region's radicals and call the U.S. role as peace mediator into question.
"It is a very serious test of this administration's credibility," said an Arab diplomat, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record.
Former Israeli negotiator Levy said Obama should use this week's incident as a springboard to push the Palestinians, and particularly Netanyahu, to reach an agreement on more fundamental matters — such as the borders of an eventual Palestinian state.
"You can kind of pivot from this stand-off to saying 'borders now, borders now,'" he said. "You've got to drive toward a 'yes' or 'no' moment with Bibi (Netanyahu) on something consequential."
(Strobel reported from Washington. Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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