Bibi is right, Obama is wrong
Is the row over the east Jerusalem building project a ruse to bring Israel to heel?
Three weeks ago, the American vice-President Joe Biden visited Israel in order to kick-start what were termed "proximity talks." What this odd phrase really means is that, rather than pressure PA President Mahmoud Abbas to talk face-to-face with Bibi Netanyahu, Mr Biden hopes to act as the go-between. He will talk to one side, and then to the other. And so on and so forth. Whether this is a sensible way of going about peacemaking is a pertinent question, but it is not one that concerns me at the moment.
What caught the media's attention was that, no sooner had Biden arrived in Israel than the Israeli government - or at least someone in an official position in Israel - announced (to quote CNN) "new settlement construction in disputed territory in east Jerusalem".
Mr Biden, apparently without making any effort to get at the truth behind the announcement, lost no time in condemning it as "a step that undermines the trust we need right now".
Not to be outdone, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went further. "The announcement of the settlements the very day that the vice President was there was insulting," she thundered, adding that even if Mr Netanyahu personally knew nothing in advance about the announcement, he was "ultimately responsible".
This was the sort of decision that UK and US planning authorities make on a routine basis
Well, as a matter of procedural fact, Mr Netanyahu bore no responsibility whatever for the announcement. The project in question - the building of 1,600 homes for Charedi Jews in Jerusalem's northern Ramat Shlomo neighbourhood - has been in the pipeline for the past three years.
All that happened three weeks ago was that the Jerusalem district planning committee approved the proposal and gave formal notice that members of the public had 60 days in which to lodge objections to it.
In other words, this was the sort of town-hall decision that planning authorities in the UK - and "zoning" authorities in the USA - make on a routine basis: approve a proposal purely for the purposes of public consultation.
We might also note that when, last November, Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on construction for Jews in Judea and Samaria, he specifically and explicitly excluded Jerusalem.
So the Ramat Shlomo project is not new, neither does it violate the November 2009 undertaking, which extended only to the West Bank, nor does Netanyahu bear responsibility for it. The so-called "crisis" in relations between Washington and Jerusalem was, in fact, entirely manufactured.
Why? One school of thought argues that the Obama administration wished to use it so as to force Netanyahu to re-open the matter of the legal status of Jerusalem, which he (in common with previous Israeli Prime Ministers) regards as closed. Others insist that Obama's real and ultimate purpose is to destabilise the Netanyahu administration, and so force its collapse and replacement by a regime more willing to dance to Washington's tune.
These explanations are not mutually exclusive and could well reflect a yet deeper purpose, namely to signal to the Muslim world that Israel is no longer the USA's favourite child, and that a fundamental shift in American foreign policy is under way. I am not (yet) a member of this alarmist camp. But I admit that some of the signs point in its direction. I am especially perturbed by an incident that took place barely 48 hours after Biden's return to the USA, and which received little media coverage in the UK.
On Thursday March 11, a ceremony took place in the town of El Birah, near Ramallah. Students from the youth wing of Mr Abbas's Fatah party gathered to dedicate a public square to one Dalal Mughrabi. At the ceremony, Fatah officials described the late Ms Mughrabi as a "courageous fighter" and a role model. For those of you who need reminding, on March 11 1978, Fatah member Dalal Mughrabi led a raiding party that landed from Lebanon on the Israeli coast. In the ensuing mayhem, 38 Jews were murdered and another 71 wounded.
Now a square has been named in her honour. Has Joe Biden condemned the naming ceremony? Did Mrs Clinton publicly categorise it as "insulting?" Of course not. And that is precisely what worries me most.