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July 12, 2022 11:26 am
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Will the Media Get Biden’s Israel Trip Right This Time?

avatar by Gil Hoffman

Opinion

US Vice President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they deliver joint statements at a meeting in Jerusalem, Israel, March 9, 2016. Photo: Reuters / Debbie Hill / Pool / File.

US President Barack Obama saved his top pro-Israel card, Vice President Joe Biden, for 15 months into his presidency. Obama’s hope was to maximize Biden’s impact in persuading then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to advance the peace process with the Palestinians.

Biden came to Jerusalem in March 2010, and expressed the Obama administration’s “absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.” He said that Washington was determined to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But then things hit a snag.

On the second day of Biden’s visit, Jerusalem’s municipal planning committee voted to advance a relatively uncontroversial plan to build 1,600 housing units in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, moving it from step three to four in a seven-stage building process.

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Immediately, wire services reported about a “new Israeli settlement plan.” The New York Times reported that, “As Biden Visits, Israel Unveils Plan for New Settlements.”

First the press, then the Obama administration, accused Netanyahu of purposely announcing plans to build new settlements during the vice president’s visit, in order to humiliate Biden and show strength against Obama (see, for example, here, here, and here).

However, the truth was far from the screaming headlines and overheated reporting. Not only did Netanyahu not make any announcement or unveil anything new, he did not even know about the housing plan.

When an aide who saw the reports came into Netanyahu’s office to ask if he knew about a new settlement called Ramat Shlomo, the prime minister’s response was “where the hell is Ramat Shlomo?”

Ramat Shlomo was neither new, nor a settlement. It is a centrally located Jerusalem neighborhood, barely over the 1949 armistice line, and just one exit north on the Menachem Begin highway from the Prime Minister’s office. It is named after the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and comprised of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews.

The Jerusalem planning committee advanced the plan that day because anti-Haredi pressure groups had appealed it at the previous meeting.

It is imperative to note that the 2009 Netanyahu-Obama agreement on a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements purposely excluded Jerusalem from the moratorium. Indeed, that was how Netanyahu had sold the freeze to the Israeli public.

To its credit, The New York Times printed a correction, stating that Ramat Shlomo “is a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, not a settlement in the West Bank.”

But by that time, the damage had been done.

Biden purposely came 90 minutes late to dinner with Netanyahu and then condemned the news, saying it “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions I’ve had in Israel.” Netanyahu not only apologized, but he formed a committee to investigate the unfolding of events during the Biden visit and come up with regulations to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

The next day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu and complained to him about the incident that she called “insulting.”

Officials in the Obama administration admitted years later that the anger expressed over the construction plan inside Jerusalem ended up undermining their efforts to persuade Israelis to take risks to advance the peace process in areas where Israeli concessions were actually possible if handled correctly.

While the Ramat Shlomo construction that only occurred years later did not and could not have harmed the peace process — because the chance of the area being relinquished in a diplomatic deal was zero — the headlines and the uproar they created did make it harder to advance the process for the remaining seven years of the Obama administration.

Now Biden is returning to Jerusalem, this time as president. He will be meeting with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and opposition leader Netanyahu, who polls show could become prime minister again. Relations between the Biden administration and Israel are currently viewed as positive, with no major disputes likely to erupt.

Lapid spoke with Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas over the weekend, the first call between an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian leader in five years. Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Abbas in person.

For those positive relations to continue and deepen — and for there to be any chance of restarting peace talks — Biden’s visit must be successful and cannot be marred by inaccurate reporting, as it was 12 years ago.

Media, it’s your move.

The author is the Executive Director of HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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