Despite a temporary freeze, construction on settlements, such as the one in Har Gilo, just outside of Jerusalem, has continued with little interruption [EPA]
The announcement last week by Eli Yishai, the Israeli interior minister, of plans to construct an additional 1,600 Israeli homes in East Jerusalem, appears to have generated quite the diplomatic row.
Coming as it did just before the start of a dinner offered by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in honour of Joe Biden, the US vice-president, the announcement threw the White House official into high dudgeon.
The US delegation must have burned up the proverbial phone lines between Israel and the West Wing of the White House, while Biden's Israeli host was kept waiting some 90 minutes until the vice-president and the Washington crowd could come up with suitable language to express their outrage.
"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel," Biden finally said, using a formulation virtually unknown in past US-Israeli diplomatic exchanges.
Days later, the White House was still apparently not finished. "This was an affront, it was an insult," intoned David Axelrod, chief White House political adviser on one of the Sunday political talk shows.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, appearing on yet another talk show, referred somewhat dismissively to Netanyahu's apology over the "timing" of the announcement: "A good start," he called it.
Goodness, what a fuss! Indeed, we would probably have to go all the way back to 1991, when George H Bush, the former US president, expressed his outrage over the settlement policies of Yitzhak Shamir, the then-Israeli prime minister,to find a similar level of US-Israeli discord.
But before we get carried away with all this operatic posturing and begin – God forbid – to take it seriously, we ought to stop a moment and examine what is really happening here.
First of all, why has Washington taken such public umbrage at this development?
Was East Jerusalem not clearly and specifically excluded from the agreement finally reached last November – after some five months of tortuous negotiations by US mediator George Mitchell – under which Netanyahu acceded to a 10-month "moratorium" on "most" new construction in the occupied West Bank?
The Israelis, as near as I can tell, were acting in complete conformity with the agreement when they announced the new units. So why the sudden histrionics? Had Washington neglected to read Mitchell's agreement? Had they forgotten that little squib about East Jerusalem?
The fact of the matter is that the Obama Administration feels humiliated over the November 2009 agreement on settlements – as well it might.
The statements made by Barack Obama, the US president, in Cairo in June 2009 concerning Israeli settlement policy were unprecedented in at least two generations, and could not have been more clear: "The United States," he said, "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements … It is time for these settlements to stop."
The importance of these statements went well beyond the settlements themselves. Obama's statement was a reiteration, in effect, of US support for the core principle underlying all relevant UN resolutions concerning Palestine, and all Arab-Israeli agreements to that point: The principle of "land for peace."
In denouncing Israeli settlement construction on occupied land as "illegitimate," he was underscoring his belief that such actions undermine the very possibility of a negotiated settlement.
After all, the two sides can struggle for decades, while still maintaining the possibility of a legitimate negotiated peace; but if a substantial amount of the land – including all of Jerusalem - is taken in established settlements which no Israeli government could conceivably give up, and if the security requirements of those settlements mandate that the rest of the land be divided into non-contiguous parcels which preclude a viable state, there is simply nothing left to negotiate over.
Point of no return
|Grenier: The best the US could do was negotiate a temporary and partial settlement freeze
We have long since passed that point; the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution even remotely acceptable to Palestinians is gone.
If that were not clear before, the November 2009 agreement on settlements made it unmistakably so.
Consider that in the aftermath of such a clear, unequivocal statement of US policy as came in Cairo, the best the Americans could do was to negotiate a temporary – and only partial – pause in settlement construction, with East Jerusalem exempted completely.
No one expects to see a negotiated settlement in 10 months, after which it will be as though the November agreement, such as it was, had never existed.
What the negotiations which finally ended in US capitulation last November made patently obvious was that Netanyahu is committed to the long-term Israeli policy initiated by Ariel Sharon in 2005, when he decided to evacuate Gaza.
Far from being a substantial "down payment" on a land-for-peace scheme, as many claimed – some naively, some cynically – the abandonment of Gaza was a strategic move to consolidate Israel and its West Bank settlements behind efficiently defensible lines, and to prepare for a unilaterally-imposed "settlement" which Israel could sustain without Palestinian acquiescence.
Since then, the policy has moved inexorably forward, through the so-called Security Fence (which serves to unilaterally confiscate yet more land), the continuation of settlements, and the completion of Israel's cordon sanitaire around East Jerusalem.
In short, the November agreement made plain that, for all the high-minded pretensions on display in Cairo, Israel's unilateralist policy is something Obama and his administration can do nothing about.
Under the circumstances, it is small wonder that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are interested in direct negotiations.
Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the Palestinian president, has no interest in negotiating an agreement which his constituency will never accept.
For the Israelis, such negotiations are at best an irritant, and at worst a minor impediment to the achievement of their designs.
Sham proximity talks
The Obama administration, for its part, is under no illusions regarding the currently-proposed "proximity talks." They know that such talks are a sham and will lead nowhere – which is why they were reluctant to propose them for so long - but the lack of even seeming progress has become a serious political embarrassment for them.
Proximity talks, if they could get them, would at least convey the impression that the administration was doing something, no matter how substantively feckless.
All of which brings us back to last Tuesday.
As poor Joe Biden struggled gamely to initiate proximity talks (even the scope and structure of which had yet to be agreed between the parties), the Israeli allies whose unshakable closeness he had been celebrating all day, apparently not content with the substantive victory they had achieved over Obama, chose – whether with or without Netanyahu's complicity – to rub the Americans' collective nose in it, lest they fail to get the message.
As the Palestinians recoil from talks, and as tensions mount on the West Bank, the Americans are denied even the illusion of progress.
It is the insult the White House is reacting to, not the injury. When the recent diplomatic unpleasantness has faded into memory, the injury will remain. Notwithstanding his evident discomfort over the timing of Tuesday's announcement, Netanyahu clearly has no intention of reversing it.
The advice he administered to his cabinet on Sunday could as easily apply to us: "I suggest not to get carried away," he said, "and to calm down."
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.