It was even more unusual that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected the reprimand. "We cannot accept the idea that Jews will not have the right to live and purchase in all parts of Jerusalem," he said. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had a photo circulated that depicted the Grand Mufti meeting Adolf Hitler. It was a somewhat clumsy provocation. After all, is it even possible to justify the need for the construction project that way?
A new tone has taken hold between the two governments. Gone are the sunny days of mutual understanding. Since Netanyahu became prime minister and Barack Obama president, the small country and its much larger protective power have become increasingly estranged. Although the United States never approved of the Jewish settlements, it tolerated them for a long time. Now they have become the political symbol of a growing conflict.
The US president, for his part, has a good reason to keep his distance. He wants to prove to the Arab world that the superpower is seeking a new beginning in the Middle East. By criticizing the construction of settlements, Obama wants to demonstrate that America's one-sided support for Israel is a thing of the past.
Netanyahu knows America well, having lived there for many years, and he has also served as Israeli prime minister once before, from 1996 to 1999. But he has underestimated the consequences of the shift in Washington's basic position. His country has become unnecessarily isolated -- a situation for which, ironically, Netanyahu holds two Jews in the White House responsible: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior presidential advisor David Axelrod, who he calls "self-hating Jews."
George Mitchell, the US special envoy for the Middle East, is a calm, experienced and tough negotiator. The Israeli government cancelled two meetings with Mitchell because of the conflict over the settlements. Netanyahu claims that the Obama administration is violating a commitment made by the Bush administration years ago, under which Washington sanctioned Israel's continue expansion of settlements to create more space for existing residents. The Obama administration disputes any such commitment was made.
If anyone knows whether Netanyahu's claim is true, it is Dov Weissglas. He was the key advisor to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had a particularly good relationship with former US President George W. Bush.
Yes, says Weissglas, there was an agreement with the Bush administration that allowed Israel to expand the settlements within the existing borders, but it was unofficial. "Publicly, the United States always opposed Israeli settlement construction," says the former advisor, who is now an attorney in Tel Aviv. In that respect, he says, Bush, who was considered a decidedly pro-Israel president, did not differ from Obama.
But because Netanyahu is unwilling to grant the Palestinians their own country, a goal the United States and the European Union have set, he shouldn't be surprised to see the Obama administration reversing the Bush administration's policies on the settlement issue, says Weissglas.