Reporting from Jerusalem — You come for a hug. You leave with a slap.
It happens in the Middle East.
Vice President Joe Biden's trip this week was supposed to highlight U.S.-Israeli cooperation to counter a perceived nuclear threat from Iran and kick off U.S.-brokered indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, talk about Iran was sidetracked and the outlook for peace may be murkier than it was before.
Even here, people are not quite sure how that happened.
The visit was overshadowed by news that Israel was approving 1,600 new housing units in disputed East Jerusalem, a move that antagonized both the Palestinians and the Americans. But why was it made public during Biden's visit?
Theories abound: Was Israel deliberately trying to sabotage talks with the Palestinians? Is the country's far right beyond Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's control? Were some politicians, emboldened by a growing nationalism, trying to score political points?
Even if Netanyahu was blindsided by the announcement, as he says he was, it suggests he lacks firm control of his government -- a prospect that further complicates delicate peace talks.
"It was probably more embarrassing for Netanyahu than for Biden," said Hebrew University political science professor Peter Medding.
The U.S. has repeatedly called for Israel to halt construction on lands it seized during the 1967 Middle East war until a peace deal can be reached with Palestinians, who want to use the territory as the foundation for an independent state.
The United Nations and most of the world view Israel's settlements as illegal under international law, but for decades successive Israeli governments have continued to expand them.
Some suspect that Israel might be trying to scuttle U.S.-mediated peace talks before they even begin. Palestinian leaders say they will not participate unless Israel shelves the 1,600-unit Ramat Shlomo project, something it refuses to do.
U.S. officials say they accept Netanyahu's assertion that he didn't know about the announcement ahead of time. The Israeli government has been contrite. Officials say the announcement's timing was coincidental, and apologized. While Biden publicly praised Israel during a farewell speech Thursday, Israeli media said he complained bitterly of betrayal in conversations with Netanyahu.
"We lost him, too," the Maariv daily lamented in a headline Thursday.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton telephoned Netanyahu to say the housing project sent a "deeply negative signal" about Israel's relationship with the U.S. "The secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to Israel's security," said State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley.
Skeptics noted that U.S. officials have been sandbagged like this before. Palestinians only half-jokingly complain that every time one comes to town, Israel announces another controversial housing project.
On Monday, as U.S. Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell was in the country to set ground rules for resumed peace talks, Israel said it would build another 112 units in the West Bank Orthodox community of Beitar Illit. Last fall, a few weeks after a Mitchell trip, and days after a White House meeting between President Obama and Netanyahu, the government announced another 900 homes in Gilo, another disputed area of Jerusalem. "One might think that there is a conspiracy here," said Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, from the liberal Labor Party, on Israel Radio on Thursday.
A statement from the opposition Kadima party said the treatment of Biden, viewed here as Israel's closest Obama administration ally, marked "a new record for political stupidity."
Noting that the announcement was handled by the right-wing Shas party, a small but influential member of Netanyahu's government, some see the flap as evidence Netanyahu is losing control.
Far-right parties have expressed unhappiness with Netanyahu's endorsement of conditional statehood for Palestinians, his willingness to resume peace talks and his pledge to limit settlement construction for 10 months in the West Bank.
"Netanyahu is not driving the car anymore," said Meir Sheetrit, a Kadima member of parliament. "This government is not serious about the peace process." He said Biden's treatment also reflected the sometimes hostile diplomacy that has come to characterize Netanyahu's government.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the conservative Yisrael Beiteinu party has ordered Israeli ambassadors to stop "groveling" and stand up to the nation's critics. Lieberman's deputy this year publicly humiliated the Turkish ambassador to Israel over what Israel considered an anti-Semitic TV show aired in Turkey. Turkey, one of Israel's only Muslim allies, demanded and received a formal apology.
"The foreign minister is a pyromaniac, lighting fires everywhere, but the prime minister is sitting quiet because he needs him," Sheetrit said.
Defying Biden also might have been an attempt to score political points. "There are those among the ostensible super-patriots of the right who revel in shots across the bow of the America ship of state," wrote the Haaretz daily on Thursday.
Conservative lawmaker Danny Danon defended Israel's right to build in Ramat Shlomo. "I think the prime minister needs to send a clear message that on the issue of Jerusalem, there will be no compromise," he said.
Oriella Ben Zvi, a Tel Aviv political consultant, cited a growing defensiveness and nationalism, particularly after international criticism of Israel's Gaza Strip offensive a year ago. "There's a bunker mentality," she said. Picking a fight with Biden is a "way of saying, 'We don't take dictates from anyone, not even the U.S.' "