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Biden's humiliation shows futility of US peace talks

The Israeli message is clear: we're happy to go through the motions of a peace "process" in order to satisfy the Americans and focus their attention on Iran.

'To wipe the spit off his face," the Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar wrote on Friday, "Biden had to say it was only rain." That, said Eldar, was why the US vice president Joe Biden ended up commending the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "handling" of what had been universally interpreted as his public humiliation at the hands of the Israeli government. Washington's latest peace effort was mocked by the announcement of plans for new Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem on the same day that Mr Biden had publicly expressed Washington's unswerving support for Israel and announced a plan for "indirect" negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Even before the Israeli announcement, the "proximity" talks - in which the two sides, no longer able to find their way to a negotiating table, would now discuss a two-state solution via American go-betweens - had been widely recognised as of limited value. The Israelis had successfully resisted the Obama administration's demand that they demonstrate their seriousness by halting construction on land conquered in 1967; their purpose in indulging the "proximity" process, one senior Israeli official said, was simply to create an atmosphere more conducive to challenging Iran. The Arab League gave conditional backing to the talks, with a deadline of just four months, despite what the secretary general Amr Moussa called the league's "lack of conviction in the seriousness of the Israeli side".

But the fact that Israel chose Mr Biden's visit to declare new plans to expand its occupation of East Jerusalem was deemed so provocative that the Americans were forced to condemn it - or at least, condemn its timing - as "undermining trust" in the peace process.As US and Israeli papers reported on Mr Biden's humiliation, the Israelis hastily apologised for the timing of the announcement - but never for its content: Mr Netanyahu has no intention of stopping the expansion of settlements in the Holy City, because he has publicly declared his refusal to cede control of East Jerusalem in any peace agreement. While the timing of the announcement may have embarrassed their guest, Israel's minister of public affairs Yuli Edelstein told The New York Times: "It is also very important to make things clear and not to play make-believe. Prime Minister Netanyahu and others have been saying loud and clear that according to Israeli law Jerusalem is sovereign Israeli territory, so no special commissions are needed to build within the municipal borders of Jerusalem. There will not be in the foreseeable future an Israeli government willing to divide Jerusalem. Normally our friends in Washington understand that."

The US position, of course, is that East Jerusalem is occupied territory, and that final-status talks must include the issue of sharing the city both sides claim as their capital. But the Israeli message is clear: we're happy to go through the motions of a peace "process" in order to satisfy the Americans and focus their attention on Iran. But don't hold your breath waiting for Israel to accept a sovereign, independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital - the generally accepted formula for a two-state solution.

The Palestinian Authority leadership, and its Arab backers, know this, of course; they, too, were going through the motions of the Obama administration's latest peace effort, hoping to simply demonstrate to the Americans that the Israelis are not serious. But even though the Israelis proved their point even before the talks got underway, the Americans remain determined to continue with the "proximity" talks for which they have greater enthusiasm than either of the two parties.

The promise of the "peace process" had always been that bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinians would produce agreement on creating a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel. It turns out, however, that this is simply no longer true. Israel has decided it can live with the status quo, and as its political median has shifted steadily to the right and the settler movement has made gains into government, the assumptions of two decades ago no longer hold. And the Israeli government believes it has sufficient support on both sides of the aisle in the US Congress that it can resist any pressure from the White House.

Conventional wisdom in Israeli politics once held that no Israeli government would survive a clash with the United States; today, Mr Netanyahu is confident that if it came to a showdown, he could make an end run around the Obama administration and win the battle for Capitol Hill. And, of course, the Israelis are betting that the 2012 US election will restore the Republicans to the White House. So, the Obama administration finds itself politically unable to press Mr Netanyahu into the concessions necessary to restart a credible peace process, even though America's own interests require one. The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot claimed on Thursday that Mr Biden had sharply castigated the Israelis behind closed doors, reportedly warning them: "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace."

Perhaps, but in public US officials insisted that the "proximity" talks remained on track, even though the Israelis have made amply clear that they won't lead anywhere. The Obama administration is more inclined to maintain the illusion of a peace process than to frankly acknowledge that there's no agreement to be had through bilateral negotiations. The Israelis are fine with that, but Mr Biden's visit carried a grim message for the Palestinian Authority and their Arab backers - and, indeed, for dovish Israelis like Akiva Eldar - for whom it demonstrated the futility of waiting for the United States to deliver an end to the Israeli occupation.

Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York who blogs at www.tonykaron.com.

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