Three decades ago, the late Abba Eban, Israel's eloquent former foreign minister, famously observed that the Arabs "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
This month, Eban would have had to sadly add: The same goes for the Israelis.
For, a most unfunny thing happened on the way to the Israeli-Palestinian peace forum that the United States planned to reconvene this week. The plan carefully negotiated and orchestrated by President Obama's skilled envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, was playing out as planned. The final piece, Vice President Biden's visit to Israel to reiterate the unshakable bond between the United States and Israel, was underway. (Biden's message was especially important because relations between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been tense ever since Obama moved last year to change the way Arabs see America by reportedly seeking to put "space" between the United States and Israel.)
Suddenly, Israel chose the occasion of Biden's visit to drop a bombshell announcement: Israel approved construction of 1,600 new apartments in the long disputed sector of East Jerusalem. Never mind that such expansions were strongly opposed by Obama, and previous presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
It was as if Israel's prime minister had handed America's vice president a loaded cigar, struck a match, and gallantly lit it. Suddenly, Biden looked like a stunned cartoon figure with a face full of exploded cigar. Inside the Obama administration there was no doubt Israel's announcement was timed to inflict maximum assured embarrassment -- upon America and its vice president.
Netanyahu apologized to Biden, maintaining he too was surprised by the announcement of the Interior Ministry that is headed by Eli Yishai, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Still, the announcement bombshell did what bombshells do -- it blew up the U.S. peace talks. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is Israel's best hope for forging a durable peace, naturally demanded Israel cancel its construction plan.
Obama conferred with Biden and instructed him to "condemn" Israel's announced plan to build the new apartments. Then Obama instructed Secretary of State Clinton to telephone Netanyahu, express strongest diplomatic displeasure and list steps the United States now expects Netanyahu to take. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz listed four points Clinton reportedly demanded of Netanyahu: (1) Israel should investigate and pinpoint who ordered the announcement; (2) reverse the decision to build the apartments; (3) Israel should make a conciliatory gesture to the Palestinians; (4) Israel should state that talks will include all core issues including the status of Jerusalem. Netanyahu had already ordered an investigation; there has been no formal word about the other points.
Time out to reflect upon a golden rule of black-and-blue diplomacy: Don't make an iron-clad demand you believe the other side can't or won't do -- unless you are prepared to do execute a very public reversal and endure the loss of face that usually follows such a 180-degree wheelie.
Israel has always insisted it will continue to build apartments in East Jerusalem -- maintaining that, after all, the land will surely be Israel's when the ultimate deal is done. Predictably, Netanyahu was quickly reported to have told his Likud Party members that he wouldn't buckle to U.S. pressure to halt the settlement construction. Interestingly, Netanyahu's spokesman, Mark Regev, quickly said that report wasn't accurate, but didn't say what was. Clinton's spokesman, P. J. Crowley, said, "We asked for a formal response from the Israeli government, and when we get that response, we'll react."
Mitchell cancelled his plan to return to the Middle East to begin the talks. And Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told fellow diplomats this is the worst crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations in 35 years
So, guess who's coming to dinner? Next week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee holds its annual conference and feed-fest in Washington. Netanyahu, Clinton and Israeli Foreign Minister (and opposition party leader) Tzipi Livni will be there. (Obama will be traveling in Asia.)
Will Netanyahu perform a rightwing rollback? Will Clinton discover a forward-looking fallback? Will Interior Minister (and probable Peace Talk Saboteur) Yishai be fired?
Grab your shades, stare beneath diplomacy's bright lights -- and see if you can see which leaders blink.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at email@example.com.