Ominous signs plague Biden's Middle East visit

JERUSALEM Fri Mar 12, 2010 4:03am IST

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waves before boarding a plane at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv March 11, 2010. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waves before boarding a plane at Ben Gurion International airport near Tel Aviv March 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In the region where symbolism may matter most, the signs for U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit were inauspicious.

First Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cancelled talks in Cairo and flew to hospital for gallbladder surgery. Then came an Israeli gift of broken glass and an eerie power outage in the "Hall of Remembrance".

By the time the lights flickered back on, Biden's Middle East fortunes were sealed with an Israeli announcement that it would build 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers, ignoring U.S. and Palestinian objections.

It was an embarrassing setback that put a spotlight on the challenge the U.S. administration faces getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Biden's visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank was a largely scripted affair -- a reflection of the sensitive issues involved as well as what many see as the Obama administration's fixation with staying on message.

Biden is famous for blunt talk and sometimes embarrassing gaffes, and his office appeared to take precautions by allowing no questions at his public press appearances.

"He does have a history of mis-speaking," said Stephen Hess, an expert on presidency at the Brookings Institution. "He's aware of it, his people are aware of it. The president is aware of it. (And) given the sensitivities on this particular trip, it may be the better part of wisdom to keep quiet."

The first sign of trouble in Israel came when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented Biden with a glass-framed gift honouring his mother.

"I have one thing to offer you right now and it's broken glass," Netanyahu said at discovering the shards he was holding. Biden cautioned: "Don't cut yourself."

The prime minister inadvertently shattered the glass when he put his elbows down on the podium, spokesman Mark Regev said.

In Judaism, broken glass is often thought to be a reminder of an imperfect world, and many say the Jewish wedding tradition of stomping on a glass is an expression of sadness at the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

At a later tour of Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, Yad Vashem, the lights in the "Hall of Remembrance" unexpectedly went out as a prayer for those killed was chanted, catching Biden's security detail by surprise.

One Biden aide described the moment as "off-putting" but others said it worked well given the mournful context. In the darkness, the only light in the cavernous room came eerily from the eternal flame reflecting off the ceiling.

"It's the Middle East," said an unfazed senior White House adviser, a veteran of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. "It could mean anything."

An Israeli expert of Jewish mysticism, known as Kabballah, said Biden's visit came at a time "when there is tremendous energy" before the Passover holiday that starts later this month, marking the biblical escape of the Jews from Egypt.

"It could be something negative, like what is referred to as the 'evil eye'," said the expert, who declined to be named. "But in Kabballah, we also believe that sometimes before a great light is revealed, there have to be a series of disturbances."

David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in the West Bank city of Hebron, said he did not necessarily believe "all of this happened because of divine intervention" but he saw the mishaps as "very symbolic".

"When the United States doesn't play its cards right, it gets a gift of broken glass," he said, noting that "one of the plagues in Egypt was darkness.

After underlining U.S. opposition to the latest settlement plan, Biden flew to Amman for more talks, and a trip to the famed ruins at Petra -- that is provided a forecast sandstorm does not prevent him reaching there.

(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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