The expansion of Har Homa has served to reinforce the believe that Benjamin Netanyahu has no interest in reaching a just peace with the Palestinians.
Concessions to Israel's land grabs mock the peace talks
The episode has further served to reinforce the belief that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has no interest in reaching a just peace with the Palestinians. This leopard has not changed his spots. Mr Netanyahu remains a wily (and not always honest) manipulator, who, at his core, is a hard-line ideologue. At the same time, the Har Homa announcement serves as an uncomfortable reminder of US impotence and the role that this weakness has historically played in enabling Israel's bad behaviour.
I remember all too well a decade and a half ago, when Jabal Abu Ghnaim was a lovely green hill on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem. It was Arab land, seized by Israel in 1967 and then annexed to what Israelis refer to as Greater Jerusalem. After becoming the prime minister in 1996, Mr Netanyahu announced plans to construct "Har Homa" on that Arab hill as part of a series of provocative acts designed to, in his words, "make a clean break" that ended the Oslo peace process and show the Americans and Palestinians who was in charge. The intent of this new settlement was to continue the process of building an Israeli housing ring around Jerusalem that would assert Israeli control while denying Palestinians access to the Holy City.
The Clinton administration opposed the Israeli plan, expressing concern that this new settlement was "unhelpful" and "counterproductive". But words alone would not stop Mr Netanyahu. Bulldozers came and scarred Jabal Abu Ghnaim, leaving it barren, with deep gouges where roads and houses would soon be built.
The Palestinians went to the United Nation's Security Council, only to see a resolution of condemnation vetoed by the US. A General Assembly resolution of condemnation passed by 134 to 3 (with Micronesia joining the US and Israel in opposition). But such resolutions have no authority. The Clinton administration continued to object and Israelis continued to plan and then to build.
That was then. Today, Har Homa is home to 20,000 Israeli settlers. The recently announced Israeli plan to build 1,000 new units will not only add thousands more, but it will also expand the settlement's footprint by half as much again, extending it to the south and east.
On one level, what was especially disturbing about this Israeli announcement was its timing and apparent intent. Coming as it did while Netanyahu was in the US, having just shared a podium with the US vice-president, Joseph Biden, it could only be seen as yet another direct challenge both to the Obama administration itself and to US efforts to restart peace talks. The announcement was also aimed at the Palestinians, telling them exactly just what the Israelis thought of a settlement freeze. In addition, the Israelis appear to be making it clear to the Palestinians that it was Israel who would define and control the terms of any final peace arrangement as it stakes claim to more and more of the occupied territories.
Given Mr Netanyahu's history in this regard, both in the 1990s and his more recent behaviour, the Obama administration's response has been more than disappointing. Echoing the timid and failed rebukes of the past, Mr Obama termed the Israeli plan "unhelpful", while the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called it "counterproductive".
More disturbing still were Mrs Clinton's words upon ending a seven-hour discussion with the Israeli prime minister, in which she reiterated the US's "unshakable" commitment to Israel's security. She also went on to describe the peace agreement the US seeks as one that "reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognised borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements". In that last statement, the secretary ratified the infamous 2004 Bush letter of assurances to the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. This has placed the US in the role of negotiating away fundamental Palestinian rights and, on the issue of settlements, of "giving away the store" to the Israelis.
The only conclusion that one can make from all of this is that those settlements that Israel built over the past 43 years, in defiance of international law, which have been described by successive American administrations as "illegal", "an obstacle to peace", "unhelpful", "counterproductive" and more recently as "illegitimate", have now become "subsequent developments" that will be accommodated by "agreed land swaps".
So Jabal Abu Ghnaim is no more, and will be no more, despite international condemnation and US "regrets". The once green Arab hill has been replaced by "subsequent developments". Given the timidity of the US response to the extension of Har Homa, in all likelihood, that too will be built, and some day soon be a reality that Palestinians will be told they must accept.
James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute