By the time Vice President Biden got to profess his love for Israel at Tel Aviv University Thursday, the bear hug he came to deliver was replaced by bear claws, and his mission - to declare no space between Israel and America when it comes to Irans nukes - was all but forgotten.
There is no question that the announcement of a plan to build 1600 new housing units in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, released by Israel just as Biden landed on Monday, was ill-timed and altogether boneheaded. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he claims, was blindsided by his interior minister Eli Yishais decision, he should have done more to censor his cabinet member.
Since then, however, Netanyahu endlessly apologized to Biden, assuring his guest that no one meant any disrespect to him or to President Obama (even though, unlike most Israelis, they consider Ramat Shlomo an occupied territory.) But before finally saying Thursday that he appreciates Netanyahus overtures, Biden publicly sulked for too long. He demonstrably arrived late to a Tuesday dinner hosted by Netanyahu, and expressed condemnation of the Jerusalem plan - the harshest of diplomatic phrases. Headlines across the world described an Israeli slap in the face of America.
Cmon, get over it. Diplomatic snafus - and consequent attempts to walk them back - are not all that rare, and they are not unique to Israel either.
Last Friday, the UN Security Council issued a statement that urged Israelis and Arabs to avoid provocations at holy religious sites. It was triggered by Palestinian rioting over an Israeli plan to renovate West Bank biblical tombs, holy to both Jews and Muslims. The Arab-initiated Security Council action marked a departure from a long-held American policy to prevent the UN's top body from acting on any Arab-Israeli issue.
The reason for that policy quickly became obvious: Palestinian officials used the council statement to further raise religious tensions across the region, declaring Israels desecration of Islams holy sites a violation of international law. Alarmed Jerusalem diplomats (who were blindsided by the Sabath Council meeting) called the State Department for explanation.
Trying to prevent a rift with Jerusalem on the eve of Bidens visit, American diplomats whispered to reporters that their woman on the scene, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, never actually agreed to the councils statement (which all council members must sign off on). They blamed the ambassador of Gabon, Emmanuel Issoze-Ngondet, who happened to preside over the council this month, for the confusion.
But several diplomats told me since then that DiCarlo raised no objection whatsoever to any part of the council statement. A smart, experienced State Department official who is nevertheless a novice in Middle East affairs, DiCarlo simply made a diplomatic mistake.
Ho-hum. Realizing there are bigger fish to fry, the Israelis quickly got over it.*******
Not so Biden. The Ramat Shlomo incident was seen as a major confrontation and by the time Biden tried to put it to bed Thursday, the press coverage of his Tel Aviv University speech largely ignored his praise of Israel, highlighting instead Bidens assertion that Only a friend like him can deliver the hardest truth to Israelis.
So is this truth (Obamas opposition to settlements) so crucial for America to deliver at this point?
Bidens Israel love-fest caps an unprecedented high-level shuttling between Washington and Jerusalem in the last few months. Obamas top foreign policy and military advisers (Jones, Mullen, et al) fly over to see their Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem, while Israelis rack up the mileage in the opposite direction. (This week the Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon and army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi visited Washington.)
No one in the region believes that all this high-level consultation is merely aimed at launching indirect (or proximity) talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Neither is it a sign of a Netanyahu-Obama love affair.
Obamas aides are increasingly concerned that Israel would go berserk on them. An Israeli military attack against Iran, they assume, would ignite a regional war that would quickly spiral out of control, hurting Americas interests. Israelis, meanwhile, helplessly watch as American promises of crippling sanctions against Iran never materialize.
After appealing to Muslims in Istanbul and to Arabs in Cairo and Saudi Arabia, Obama is finally discovering the (strategic and political) pitfalls of ignoring Jerusalem's concerns. So he sends his vice president over, hoping that Bidens long pro-Israel Senate voting record would convince Israelis that America is still their best friend, and that they should keep their powder dry.
But instead of smoothing feathers, Bidens trip ended up highlighting one clear truth to Israelis and their neighbors: theres still too much space between the two countries. Mission unaccomplished.