Biden confirms Washington will uphold ‘Israeli security’
US Vice-President Joe Biden confirmed the US would defend Israeli security at a press conference with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, as a fresh effort to revive peace talks got underway. Biden will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.
Kicking off a five-day visit to the Middle East, US Vice President Joe Biden assured Israel on Tuesday of Washington’s commitment to its security, calling the “bond” between the two nations “unshakable”.
Biden’s presence, and the renewed emphasis on US-Israel solidarity, constitutes the Obama administration’s attempt to hit the restart button on Mideast peace talks. It is also an effort to repair an alliance left frayed after the US tried and failed to pressure Israel into a total settlement freeze last year.
Encouragement for fragile peace talks
Biden’s official mission is to add momentum to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that both sides have agreed to resume through separate meetings - organised by US President Barack Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell - with a US mediator. The talks had been suspended since December 2008.
After talking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden said that the resumption of the talks through US mediation was a “real opportunity” for peace.
But even the upcoming indirect talks remain burdened with obstacles. Biden's visit came as Israel gave a green light for 112 new homes to be built in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, and 1,600 in east Jerusalem. In an interview with FRANCE 24, journalist Irris Makler reported from Jerusalem that the Palestinian reaction to this move was “one of rage and maybe even despair”.
For the moment, the Arab League and Palestine Liberation Organisation have agreed to up to four months of indirect talks with Israel, giving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas backing to re-engage with Israelis even though he did not obtain the full settlement freeze he had initially sought.
Meanwhile, in private meetings with US officials, Israel has objected to addressing key sticking points such as borders and the future of Jerusalem in the indirect talks. Netanyahu has also repeated the Israeli condition that Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state, a demand that has been rejected.
In his statement after meeting with Netanyahu, Biden - who plans to see Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday - said both Israel and Palestinians would have to “make some historically bold commitments” to achieve peace.
But Makler notes that while “people talking is better than people not talking”, there is reason for scepticism. She noted that “sniping between the parties” and pervasive “dissatisfaction” will “bode ill for any talks”. Indeed, the biggest stumbling block according to Makler is the “hugely suspicious” attitude between Israelis and Palestinians. “There’s very little faith in the process,” she notes. “And it’s that faith that would carry this process through.”
Reassurance on Iran
Biden’s other goal is to convey the White House’s wish that no strike be made on Iran while Washington pursues sanctions to curb its nuclear programme - all the while reassuring Israel that its security would remain America’s priority.
“We’re determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and we’re working with many countries around the world to convince Tehran to meet its international obligations and cease and desist,” Biden said after meeting Netanyahu.
“There is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security,” Biden said to the media.
Repairing a fraying friendship
The other, unspoken, purpose of Biden’s visit is to reinvigorate the longstanding US-Israeli bond, left vulnerable after the Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to pressure Israel into a complete settlement freeze.
While former US President George W. Bush’s support for Israel was generally seen as unconditional, Obama began his term asking for Israeli concessions. The result, according to Makler, was “a relationship that has been much more fraught”.
Sending Biden - who has what Makler calls “a long history of support for Israel” – is the Obama administration’s bid for a fresh start with a more modest approach, in which the US reassures Israel before all sides prepare to wade back into contentious negotiations.