Slapping Your Best Friend in the Face

I have to say that when Israel’s Interior Ministry announced an approved plan to build 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, smack in the middle of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, I felt insulted. I’m not just saying that I thought it was a very stupid thing to do. That is obvious.

Even Netanyahu basically said that. I’m saying I felt insulted. As an American.

And when I heard that Biden not only condemned the announcement on his own and President Obama’s behalf, but deliberately showed up ninety minutes late to a state dinner with the Netanyahus, trading insult for insult, I felt, as an American, glad.

I’m not just talking about judgments here, I’m talking about feelings. Anyone who knows me or my writing knows that I am a loyal supporter of Israel under almost any circumstances, and that I resist the temptation to criticize Israel, also under almost any circumstances. But I am an American first.

The announcement was a slap in the face to the Vice President of my country while he was making the highest-level visit yet made by the Obama administration, at the moment he was talking with the Palestinian leadership, having already met with Israel’s leaders and saying at a joint press conference with Netanyahu that there is “no space” between Israel and the United States.

If Israel could not see a way to avoid such an insult, I have to question whether it is truly interested in either its friendship with the United States or a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I always say that Jews in the U.S. should not tell Israel what to do because we do not put ourselves on the line there, and so we don’t have the gut reactions needed to make the right decisions.

Now I’m saying that I have consulted my gut as an American. It tells me that I and my country have been disrespected, and that makes me feel angry. And you can bet your last shekel that if I feel that way, so will many other Americans, including many American Jews.

Nonetheless, this morning Joe Biden gave a speech at Tel Aviv University full of warmth and friendship. The BBC, not exactly known for pro-Israel bias, carried a long live segment of it, in which Biden described learning admiration for Israel at his Catholic father’s knee. (Also this morning, the BBC had a long segment on a new documentary about the anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss, in which the children and grandchildren of the filmmaker—one of them half Jewish–showed continuing condemnation and shame over their connection to him.) 

In the televised part of his speech, Biden also described his first visit to Israel as a young Senator, when he met then-Prime Minister Golda Meir (“we claimed her as our own”) and was treated to a lecture on Israel’s security. It was 1973. Right after the conversation, at a media photo-op, without turning her head from the reporters, Golda said, “Don’t look so worried.” He said he was worried. “We have a secret weapon,” she said. Strategic pause. “We have nowhere else to go.”

He admitted thinking she had invented this line for him, but it doesn’t matter. Between Golda (who hugged him “like my mother would”) and his own father (“who you would refer to as a righteous Christian”), he formed an indelible impression of Israel’s and the Jews’ vulnerability, and their right to a homeland of their own. “This place, it gets in your blood, it never really lets you go.”

As he put it later in the speech–in reference to Iran’s “existential strategic threat”—“Trust me, we get that.” He vowed that the U.S. would ensure that Israel continues to have a “qualitative” edge over its enemies.

But he also said that peace between Israel and “a viable, independent Palestinian state is profoundly in Israel’s interest.” And that, “the demographic realities make it increasingly difficult for Israel to remain both a Jewish homeland and a democratic country.” And that, “this is about both preserving your identity and achieving the security you deserve.”

He also reminded his audience that there is a better negotiating partner on the other side than there has ever been before: “Who has there been better to date, to have the prospect of settling this with? But instead, two days ago the Israeli government announced it would advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. I realize this is a very touchy subject in Israel as well as in my own country. But because that decision, in my view, undermined the trust required for productive negotiations, I — and at the request of President Obama–condemned it immediately and unequivocally.”

He was far too gracious to remind the audience that he and his country had been insulted by Israel, and he ended on an up-beat. But time is not on Israel’s side. The day may yet come when Abba Eban’s famous remark about the Palestinians—“They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”—will apply equally or more to Israelis. That, my gut tells me, will not be a good day for the friendship between Israel and America.


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