Vice President Joe Biden said Monday night that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was leading the country “in the wrong direction” hours after a bus bombing in Jerusalem wounded at least 21 people.
In a speech to the Israel advocacy group J Street, Biden criticized Palestinian leaders, but saved his harshest words for Israeli officials.
“I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past several years — the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures — they’re moving us, and, more importantly, they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction,” Biden said.
Biden did single out Palestinian leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, for declining to condemn specific acts of terrorism carried out against Israelis. The vice president said he didn’t know whether Monday’s explosion was a terrorist attack, but added that the U.S. condemns “misguided cowards” who resort to violence.
Israeli officials have called the bombing of an empty bus parked near other vehicles a terror attack, with Netanyahu linking it to the ongoing wave of attacks in which Palestinians have targeted Israelis in Jerusalem.
“We will settle accounts with these terrorists,” Netanyahu said in a speech following the bombing. “We are in a protracted struggle against terror — knife terror, shooting terror, bomb terror and also tunnel terror.”
The fact that the bulk of Biden’s criticism was reserved for Netanyahu reflected diminishing patience within the White House as President Obama’s term nears an end. Tension between the longtime allies has been compounded by deep disagreements over Iran and a strained relationship between the two leaders.
Biden, who met in March with both Netanyahu and Abbas, said he came away from that trip discouraged about prospects for peace anytime soon. Still, he said the U.S. is obliged to guarantee Israel’s security and to “push them as hard as we can” toward a two-state solution despite “our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government.”
“There is at the moment no political will that I observed from either Israelis or Palestinians to go forward with serious negotiations,” Biden said.
As if to underscore the point, Israeli and Palestinian officials had a testy exchange at the United Nations Monday at a Security Council open meeting on the Middle East.
“Are you ready right now to denounce terror against innocent Israelis?” Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon demanded of his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad Mansour.
Mansour refused, shooting back, “Shame on you! You are the occupier.”
“Shame on you!” Danon replied. “Instead of denouncing terror, you are encouraging it!”
Biden’s remarks to J Street, a dovish group that frequently criticizes Netanyahu, came at the height of a campaign season in which candidates have been scrutinized over their adherence to traditionally stalwart U.S. support for Israel.
Ahead of Tuesday’s primary in New York, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has sparked controversy by saying the U.S. should be even-handed and mustn’t always say that Netanyahu is right.
In another dig at Netanyahu and his Likud Party, Biden singled out for praise Stav Shaffir, a young member of Israel’s parliament and a Netanyahu critic from the left wing of Israeli politics.
“May your views begin to once again become the majority opinion in the Knesset,” Biden said.