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Sharp Elbows, Cold Shoulders Mark Biden Trip to Israel

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Vice President Biden speaks at Tel Aviv University March 11. (Reuters Photo)

Vice President Biden's trip to the Middle East -- meant to pave the way for a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks -- is coming to a close, leaving in its wake a trail of stinging snubs, cringe-worthy blunders and one-word headlines in Israel newspapers: "Embarrassment."  

If it were merely a series of typical "Biden'isms," it'd be one thing. But in a sign that U.S.-Israeli relations have cooled, the vice president and top Israeli officials spent the better part of the week poking each other in the eye.

It didn't take long to see the trip was not going well.

The U.S. vice president's most daring snub may have come when he arrived 90 minutes late to a dinner Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

But that was after a day of mishaps on the Israeli end and before the prospect of restarting peace talks began to sputter. 

Perhaps the first sign was when the administration agreed to bring along MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews, whose penchant for gaffery rivals Biden's. 

The media guest of honor used his Monday programming to suggest, along with another reporter, that Israelis dislike President Obama because they're racist. 

"Who's more popular over here? Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden. Put them in order," Matthews asked New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner Monday on air. When Bronner put Obama at the bottom, Matthews inquired: "Okay, that tells you a lot. So tell me why the president of the United States is so far at the bottom? Is it his middle name? Hussein?" 

Bronner said "prejudice" about Obama's Islamic background was a factor, and then Matthews took it a step further, saying, "Yeah, because they see him as a black man." 

Not the best way to kick off America's presence in the Holy Land. 

It got worse from there. 

During a meeting Tuesday between Biden and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the president's residence, Peres subjected Biden to a 25-minute speech before he got to say a word. The perceived snub had the Israeli press raging. 

"This is one visit Joe Biden will not quickly forget," wrote a columnist in Haaretz, saying Peres thinks visitors "drink in his musings and are intoxicated by his vision." 

Cringe-inducer No. 2 came shortly afterward when Netanyahu gave Biden a gift -- a framed certificate describing trees planted in Jerusalem in honor of his late mother. Only Netanyahu broke the glass and, according to one account, "shards flew all over." 

"Thank you, Joe. I have one thing to offer you right now, and it's broken glass," Netanyahu said. 

"Don't cut yourself," Biden responded. 

All this might have been forgotten, but then Israel's government announced plans for 1,600 new homes in disputed east Jerusalem. The announcement allegedly blind-sided Netanyahu, who reportedly apologized later to Biden. 

But the construction plans sent Biden on a tear. He released a written statement Tuesday condemning the decision and said the "substance and timing" of it "is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions I've had here in Israel." 

This was followed by more criticism Wednesday during a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden again said Israeli had "undermined" the trust between the U.S. and Israel and declared the United States "will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did." 

Though the visit started with U.S. envoy George Mitchell announcing that indirect talks would resume between Israelis and Palestinians, in the wake of the chaotic week the Arab League recommended withdrawing its critical support for new negotiations. Abbas reportedly has threatened to walk away. 

Biden, trying to bring things back from the edge Thursday, used a speech at Tel Aviv University to declare the United States has "no better friend" than Israel. 

But before Biden, the highest-level Obama administration official to visit Israel yet, even embarked on this tour, one Israeli official signaled Biden never could have fixed their problems anyway. 

Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of Israel's parliament, was quoted in The Washington Post saying, "We see it as nothing short of an insult that President Obama himself is not coming."

So much for racism.