U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded explanations from her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni, last week about the plan to build another 300 apartments in the Har Homa neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Rice did not make do with posing a question to Livni; she hastened to go public with the Bush Administration's objections to the plan.
Administration spokespeople normally oppose any moves liable to damage Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations - namely, the settlements. But this time, Rice also expressed fear that the construction in Har Homa would disrupt the Annapolis process. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas claim to be racing toward George W. Bush's goal - concluding the negotiations and establishing a Palestinian state within a year - but the talks are still at the takeoff stage, and the presumption that the process is going quickly is threatening to crash into Har Homa.
Israel has no good answer to the American objections. An internal matter? Har Homa is within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries and under Israeli sovereignty? A bureaucratic issue? An Israel Lands Administration tender whose turn had come to be published? These claims are ridiculous. No one in the world recognizes Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem. It is enough to examine the official maps published by the U.S. State Department and the CIA: Everything beyond the lines Israel held on June 4, 1967, is occupied territory. That is true for the Golan Heights, and it is true for the new neighborhoods Israel built in Jerusalem. Israel's unilateral steps are a game of make-believe that obligate nobody but itself - and especially not the world's greatest power, which is also the only country that gives Israel vital military and diplomatic assistance.
Nor can Israel rely on Bush's April 2004 letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon in which the U.S. president said the reality created by settlements in the territories must be taken into account. Bush's declaration was not a commitment to refrain from evacuating settlements, does not bind his successors and has even been demonstratively omitted from other diplomatic documents, including an almost identical letter he sent at the same time to King Abdullah of Jordan. In any case, anything that has happened in the three and a half years since then is surely not covered by the Bush declaration.
It is no surprise that Israel's move has been interpreted as a provocation, or at best stupidity, coming as it does on the threshold of a fateful diplomatic breakthrough that Israel is ostensibly happy to participate in, not one it has been dragged to. The old tricks - like expanding the settlements' external boundaries, building new settlements under the guise of neighborhoods of existing settlements or, the most beloved excuse of all, "natural growth" - deceive nobody. They merely provide the Palestinians with ammunition for their propaganda, help Hamas to claim that Olmert is humiliating Abbas and push Bush and Rice into taking a stand against Israel.
The Annapolis festivities have ended, and the test will be in the dull implementation. Thus far, not a single outpost has been evacuated, not the slightest diplomatic progress has been made, and Israel is retreating into the worst of all possible worlds - subject to terror attacks that the Palestinians are still not really trying to restrain, yet putting itself, with its own hands, on the diplomatic defensive. At this rate, and with this sagacity, the Annapolis conference will prove no more than a barren footnote.