Earlier in the week, President Bill Clinton had condemned the Israeli plan for 6,500 new Jewish homes on land claimed by the Palestinians, arguing that it would not help the Middle East peace effort. America's new ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, reiterated Mr Clinton's position, even as he refused to go along with the Security Council resolution.
"We have never believed, despite the useful role the council has played in working for a Middle East peace, that it is an appropriate forum for debating the issue now under negotiations between the two parties," Mr Richardson explained. The logic, it would appear, is that the US does not wish to have its dominant role as international "honest broker" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict diminished by meddlers at the United Nations, whom Washington perceives not to grasp the finer points of the peace negotiations.
After meeting the Jordanian Prime Minister, Abdul-Karim al-Kabariti, in Gaza yesterday, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, condemned the veto as "a completely wrong decision". It will also annoy the Western allies of the US, already restive over the American near monopoly of influence in the Middle East, which aimed the resolution at Israel for failing to keep to past commitments agreed in negotiations. The resolution had called on Israel to "refrain from all actions and measures" that "alter the facts on the ground".
The Palestinian reaction was restrained because Mr Arafat is making every effort to cultivate President Clinton and recruit his aid in forcing Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, to implement the present phase of the Oslo peace accords which would end Israeli occupation of the West Bank. They hope Washington will seek a reward for its veto from Mr Netanyahu by forcing him into a more conciliatory position.
This is unlikely, because Mr Netanyahu's political position is weak. His cabinet voted by only 10 to 7 to carry out the first phase of withdrawal from the West Bank over the next few days. Israeli forces will leave 7 per cent of the West Bank and cede civil power in another 2 per cent.
The US has every reason for keeping its monopoly over Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. It is an essential element in American predominance in the region, which reached its present peak with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of the American-led coalition over Iraq in 1991. Efforts by west European states to take independent initiatives in the Middle East have been tentative and unproductive in the face of US resistance.
Mr Netanyahu came to power last year despite efforts by the US to keep the Labour party in power. At first he appeared to underestimate Mr Clinton, appealing for support to the Republican majority in Congress. But last September, when violence erupted after Mr Netanyahu opened a tunnel into the Muslim quarter of the Old City, he accepted US mediation.
The building of a settlement at Har Homa has already raised the political temperature, before the first bulldozer has started work. Mr Arafat has made strenuous efforts to prevent violence, while milking the situation for diplomatic advantage. Palestinian security co-operated with Israeli troops on Friday to keep order at a demonstration at Har Homa. But almost any incident could ignite an explosion.