Israel apologised apologised for the embarrassment it had caused its most important ally by announcing it would build 1,600 new homes in disputed East Jerusalem at the very moment the US vice-president, Joe Biden, was in the country for a visit. But no apology – nor the implausible explanation that the announcement was a "procedural" matter of which Benjamin Netanyahu had not been informed in advance – can obscure the truth that this episode has revealed.
The timing was breathtaking. Only hours earlier, Mr Biden had sought to banish doubts about President Obama's support for Israel by proclaiming Washington's "absolute, total, unvarnished" commitment to the country's security. The previous day, George Mitchell, the administration's Middle East envoy, reported that Israel and the Palestinians had agreed to "proximity talks" that would restart the Middle East peace process. The housing announcement however shows what Israel truly thinks of that process. So much for the partial freeze on settlements in the West Bank that Hillary Clinton last year naively hailed as an unprecedented concession by Israel. East Jerusalem, which Israel insists is part of its united capital, was excluded, and the latest announcement makes clear Israel will not yield on this point, crucial to any final deal between the two sides.
The wider message is no less obvious. Mr Netanyahu may be willing to go through the motions of peace talks, but his priority is to create facts on the ground that no subsequent negotiation can roll back. And in a short-term sense, that policy is succeeding. Thanks not least to the wall constructed along the border, terrorist attacks by Palestinians have all but ceased. Why jeopardise this seeming stability by putting everything back on the table in the quest for a final settlement? Instead Israel can focus on the security threat that concerns it far more, namely Iran.
In fact of course, the two issues are linked, since the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine only fuels Iran's campaign against the Jewish state. But Israel calculates that no US president – not even Barack Obama who has spoken so movingly of the historical injustice visited on the Palestinians – will dare deliver it a serious slap. And who is to say that calculation is wrong?Reuse content