|Israel is in a race to create 'facts on the ground' [GALLO/GETTY]
At the beginning of his term, Barack Obama became the first US president to call for a halt in Jewish settlement construction in the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories as a prerequisite for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But if a deal that stipulates a partial 90-day freeze of settlement building in return for US military and political incentives is reached, he will become the first US president to legitimise the Jewish colonies.
Palestinian negotiators have so far said that they will reject the deal - and so they should. A partial freeze would allow for the continuation of construction in occupied East Jerusalem, while the very concept of a temporary freeze is designed to give talks just enough time for an agreement allowing Israeli annexation of the biggest settlement blocs to be reached.
Taken at face value, a period for the Israelis and Palestinians to reach an agreement on territorial borders is logical - as the status of the settlements would automatically be resolved as part of this. Or at least this would be the case if there were any signs that Israel and the US would respect international law - under which all settlements are illegal as the appropriation of land by force or the transfer of a population into that land is categorically banned.
Setting the stage
But the US push for a freeze has nothing to do with international law and everything to do with paving the way for an agreement that would keep most of the settlements under Israeli control.
It is the facts on the ground - imposed by Israeli force - that will be allowed to determine the shape of any agreement. And any slowdown in construction would therefore only affect the rough contours and not the substance of the deal for which Israel and the US are setting the stage.
But Israel's reluctance to renew the freeze that ended in September stems from its need to expand the largest settlements to match a map that it has already drawn (but not revealed to the Palestinians) of the boundaries of those settlements it wants to keep in any final deal.
This is not simply a policy designed by the current right-wing coalition government; it has been a key strategy of all Israeli governments for Israel has always been in a race to populate settlements so as to maximise the amount of land it can keep.
This means that when negotiations over boundaries begin, Israel will use the facts it has created on the ground to define the final map of the region.
While the precise details of the offer the US has made - reportedly including advanced warplanes worth $3bn and a pledge to thwart Palestinian efforts to get the UN Security Council to declare an independent Palestinian state on the land Israel occupied in 1967 - seem to be changing all the time, the central idea revolves around rewarding Israel rather than pressuring it to stop its expansionism.
Such a deal looks like a reward for a major concession, but Israel would not, in fact, be making any real compromise. It would be a one time freeze and - as Israeli officials are indicating - building would resume as soon as it was over.
When Obama took office, his position was that the settlements are illegal as they are built on occupied land. But we are now witnessing a significant and dangerous shift from placing the illegality of the settlements at the heart of the debate to rewarding a temporary freeze in an illegal activity.
This has served to reduce the settlement issue to a mere bargaining chip that pertains more to US-Israeli relations than to international law. And in so doing, it has distracted attention from the fact that the real differences between the Palestinians and Israelis are not about the settlements per se, but about whether Israel acknowledges that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is occupied Palestinian territory.
Israel's starting position is that it is entitled to the land it controls but may make some "territorial concessions" that suit its needs and interests. And, off the back of congressional midterm losses and under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, Obama now wants to reach a deal that will enforce US standing - it was, after all, Obama who emboldened the Palestinians to insist on a freeze - without compromising Israel's all-important "security needs".
But the very freeze Obama was so instrumental in pushing has now become a weapon to be used against the Palestinians - functioning merely as a tactic by which to lure Palestinians into negotiations that are designed to lead to the Israeli annexation of the land the settlements are on.
If it will ultimately lead to the legitimisation of Israeli settlements and, furthermore, the occupation, the Palestinians might just be better off without a freeze being agreed.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.