Tensions Soar With Attacks During Vice Presidential Visit To Israel And Palestine

CREDIT: Debbie Hill, Pool via AP

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands while giving joint statements in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Israel, Wednesday, March 9, 2016.

Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just sat down to talk on Tuesday when news broke of a series of deadly stabbings in East Jerusalem and Jaffa. The four separate attacks — which were all carried out by Palestinian men — left a dozen people injured and killed a visiting American student. The attacks have sharpened hostilities between Israeli and Palestinian officials — and also further complicated the once unshakable alliance between the United States and Israel.

“There can be no justification for this hateful violence and the United States stands firmly behind Israel’s right to defend itself,” Biden said at a press conference Wednesday. “This cannot be viewed by civilized leaders as an appropriate way in which to behave.”

A wave of gun, knife, and car attacks carried out by Palestinian individuals killed 20 Israelis between October 1 and January 19. In that time, more than 150 Palestinians have been killed, many of them by Israeli fire during protests, clashes, and attacks.

‘Failure To Condemn’

Netanyahu condemned Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for glorifying assailants of such attacks.

“This is wrong and this failure to condemn terrorism should be condemned itself by everybody in the international community,” he said during the joint press conference with Biden.

According to a report from the Jerusalem Post, Abbas rejected Biden’s appeal to condemn the attack when they met on Wednesday.

Although he offered his condolences for the killed American student, Abbas said that Israel has “killed 200 Palestinians in the past five months” without stating that many of those deaths came when Israel fired on would-be Palestinian attackers.

“The continued Israeli dictates, settlements and occupation are the reason behind the violence and bloodshed,” he said.

In the past, Abbas has said that he does not want to see an escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine.

“All our instructions to our [security] agencies, our factions and our youth have been that we do not want escalation,” he said in October.

Although he said that he was unable to “ask the Palestinian youths why they are setting out,” Abbas offered his own hypothesis in a speech he gave in Ramallah in December.

“They set out because they have begun to feel desperate about the two-state solution,” he said. “They wander around and see no logical basis for two states. Our state is non-existent — settlements and checkpoints. They see no solution ahead of them.”

Biden, who will meet with Abbas on Wednesday, visited Israel in order to patch relations that have become increasingly fraught in the last year.

Strained Relations Between Allies

The U.S.-backed nuclear deal with Iran, which Netanyahu controversially spoke out against in a visit to Congress last March, was seen as a low-point in the exceptional alliance between the two countries.

Fissures between the two have also emerged over the terms of a new 10-year, multibillion dollar military aid package. The current $30 billion package will run through 2017. The United States has long ensured Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region, but Netanyahu has asked for more funding than the Obama administration has been willing to allocate.

“These talks are taking place in the context of a challenging budgetary environment in the United States that has necessitated difficult trade-offs amongst competing priorities,” a senior administration official told the Washington Post under condition of anonymity due to the ongoing nature of the closed-door talks.

In a sign that he might be willing to walk away from talks with the Obama administration, Netanyahu suggested in February that he might wait for the next administration to work out a military package.

“[We] need to see if [we] can achieve a result that will address Israel’s security needs or perhaps we will not manage to come to an agreement with this administration and will need to come to an agreement with the next administration,” he told Israeli cabinet ministers.

The U.S.-Israel alliance was further rattled this week when Netanyahu unexpectedly declined to visit the United States to meet with Obama later this month.

The reason for his cancelled visit was the ongoing election campaign, which he is cautious not to interfere with, according to a cabinet minister close to Netanyahu. His office claimed that Obama was unable to accommodate the Israeli Prime Minister, although administration officials denied such a conflict.

“Reports that we were not able to accommodate the Prime Minister’s schedule are false,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said. “We were looking forward to hosting the bilateral meeting, and we were surprised to first learn via media reports that the Prime Minister, rather than accept our invitation, opted to cancel his visit.”

Israeli political opponents to Netanyahu have criticized his fickle behavior towards U.S. officials.

Former peace negotiator and co-leader of the Zionist Union party Tzipi Livni said, “The terror wave will not subside on its own, the Biden visit is an opportunity to lower the flames.”