Commentary: Israel keeps sending mixed messages

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent months imploring Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, vowing a profound commitment to a negotiated peace and pledging his support for a two-state solution.

Still, many people don't believe him. It's no wonder. Under Netanyahu, Israel has made a habit of taking the kind of missteps that make people think it doesn't really want peace.

The inexcusable announcement of more housing construction in disputed areas of Jerusalem coming just as Vice President Joe Biden visited the city was just one more example.

By now, all doubts should have been erased that Israel wants peace with its neighbors. By now, it should be evident to all that Israelis are willing to take risks for reconciliation, including handing over land with which Jews have ancient connections.

But the doubts about Israel's intentions remain. There are many reasons for that. One reason is the behavior of the unwieldy coalition over which Netanyahu presides and of the prime minister himself.

Over the years, poll after poll has shown a large majority of Israelis supports the creation of a Palestinian state and withdrawal from most of the West Bank. Israelis have already withdrawn from all of Gaza and Sinai. And over the years, government after government in Israel has offered to pull out from almost all of the West Bank, with land swaps to make up for the small parts remaining within Israel. The last offer, made only last year by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, did not even receive an answer.

Netanyahu says that he has joined the majority in supporting withdrawal from the West Bank, even if half of Palestinians today live under a regime that calls for the destruction of Israel. Why then, on the very day Biden was in town -- just two days after Palestinians agreed to re-enter (indirect) talks -- did Netanyahu's government make the predictably explosive announcement that it has approved 1,600 new apartments in Ramat Shlomo, a densely populated neighborhood of ultra-religious Jews in northeast Jerusalem?

Israel has apologized. Netanyahu says he did not know the notice would come that day on a project that has been in the works for years and still has years to go. He pointed to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of the far right-wing Shas party, whose ministry made the announcement. Yishai apologized for the timing, but blamed his planning office.

It's all rather cartoonish. Israelis are rightly embarrassed by their government.

Some think Yishai and his Shas zealots deliberately tried to sabotage the peace process. To me, the incident has a familiar whiff of that blend of bravado, incompetence and stupidity that has come from Israel in recent months. Other such incidents include the prime minister's decision to plant saplings in a West Bank settlement -- also disputed territory -- and a horrifically mishandled exchange with the Turkish ambassador by the deputy foreign minister.

True, Netanyahu had never promised to stop construction in Jerusalem, and the government opposes withdrawing from anywhere in the city. But was this the day to make the announcement for more homes in a contested area? Clearly not.

Biden traveled to Jerusalem to tell Israelis that "American support for Israel is not just an act of friendship; it's an act of fundamental national self-interest on the part of the United States." And to discuss the threat from Iran where, incidentally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the "hated Israel will be annihilated," at the precise time Biden was condemning apartment construction in Jerusalem.

Palestinians knew better than to make the wrong move with traveling media in town. They delayed a ceremony originally scheduled during Biden's visit, honoring a Palestinian terrorist who hijacked an Israeli passenger bus in an attack that left 38 people dead. The event will come after the foreigners' cameras leave. We won't hear about that slight to the peace process.

Many believe Netanyahu is not serious about peace. To be sure, the prime minister is a master of mixed messages. That's partly by design. Netanyahu wants the right-wingers in his coalition to stay with him.

But if he really wants an agreement with Palestinians, and I believe he does, this will have to stop.

Otherwise, the Israeli people, who have always wanted peace, will demand a change at the top.