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Vice President Biden on goodwill trip to Israel

Biden is set to arrive Monday, with a goal of mending relations between U.S. and Israel after a tough first year in which Obama's demands in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict alienated many in Israel.

March 08, 2010|By Edmund Sanders

Reporting from Jerusalem — Vice President Joe Biden was due to arrive Monday in Israel on a mission to mend relations after a rocky first year for new administrations in both countries.

During the three-day visit, Biden is expected to consult with Israeli leaders about Iran and kick off peace negotiations -- albeit indirect ones -- between Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestine Liberation Organization led by Fatah formally endorsed U.S.-brokered talks on Sunday.

But analysts and officials say the primary objective for Biden, the highest-ranking administration official to visit Israel since President Obama's election, is to give Israel's government a diplomatic nod and boost Israelis' confidence in the U.S. president. Obama's approval ratings here are among the lowest for any U.S. president in recent memory.

"Israelis feel they've been unloved and unattended," said Robert Malley, director of the Middle East program of the International Crisis Group in Washington. "Biden is there to reconnect with the Israeli public."

Obama upset many here last year by jumping into the Israeli-Palestinian fray with strong public demands on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office in the spring. Obama urged the conservative leader to endorse a two-state solution and called for a halt to all settlement construction in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War, including East Jerusalem.

Some analysts praised Obama for moving so early and aggressively and trying to demonstrate that the United States would take an evenhanded approach. Palestinians and Arab nations have complained that the U.S. often takes Israel's side.

In an effort to reach out to Muslims, Obama made several high-profile trips to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But the lack of a visit to Israel alienated many here. Now Obama has acknowledged that his strategy did not work as hoped.

In June, Netanyahu endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state but with heavy conditions, and he later implemented a partial 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement construction that did not include Jerusalem.

The compromise left almost no one satisfied. Palestinians refused to engage in direct talks without a full freeze and felt betrayed when the U.S. appeared to back away from its original position. Arab nations rebuffed Obama's calls to begin normalizing relations with Israel.

In Israel, the initial U.S. pressure galvanized public opinion around the government of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.

In particular, Obama's calls for Israel to stop building in disputed parts of Jerusalem were highly unpopular. Many Israelis view Jerusalem as part and parcel of their country, though such claims are rejected by Palestinians, who want to make East Jerusalem the capital of their future state.

"It was a mistake," said Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to Washington and now a foreign policy advisor in Netanyahu's Likud Party. "It resulted in a negative reaction from all sides of the political spectrum in Israel. But they realize this now. The U.S. administration has changed the volume of its approach."

Shared concern about Iran's nuclear threat also propelled the U.S. and Israel to set aside their differences so they can work together, analysts said.

Last summer, some were wondering whether Netanyahu's government would be able to survive being caught between U.S. demands for concessions and pressure from his conservative coalition partners, who opposed a settlement slowdown.

It wasn't the first time Netanyahu found himself in such a position. During his first term as prime minister in the 1990s, Netanyahu bowed to U.S. pressure to withdraw from parts of Hebron, in the West Bank, and then watched his coalition fall apart when conservatives withdrew support.

This time around, Netanyahu seems to have navigated more deftly, and many see him as someone who stood up to a U.S. president.

"No doubt in the arm-wrestling between the U.S. and Israel, the Israeli government won Round 1," Malley said.

But some see the trip by Biden, who is almost certain to reiterate the "special" and "unbreakable" bond between the U.S. and Israel, as a U.S. effort to win back some leverage in Israel.

"The White House apparently decided that it needs to embark on a charm offensive in Israel to make Netanyahu more vulnerable to coercion," Carolyn Glick, the Jerusalem Post's deputy managing editor, wrote Sunday.

Biden's trip, which will include a visit with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, also offers something of a victory lap to usher in negotiations using a go-between, under the mediation of U.S. envoy George Mitchell.

Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are optimistic about the prospects of such indirect talks, noting that the two sides had been talking directly for nearly 20 years.

But the U.S. is hoping that indirect talks eventually will build trust. The Obama administration is also eager to demonstrate that its efforts in the Middle East peace process have yielded results, analysts say.

"U.S. elections are coming up. I see a lot of American politics in this visit," said Eytan Gilboa, political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

edmund.sanders

@latimes.com

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