Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made what was presumably intended to sound like a historic peace gesture towards the Palestinians last week.
He invited Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament, echoing Menachem Begin’s invitation to Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, in 1977. That visit was the prelude to a peace agreement concluded the following year between Israel and Egypt.
Should Mr Abbas accept, it would pose a dilemma for his host. According to Israeli law, the right of foreigners to address the parliament is reserved to visiting heads of state.
As one Israeli commentator pointedly observed, Mr Netanyahu would have either to hurriedly change the law or to recognise Mr Abbas as the head of a Palestinian state. We can assume he is about to do neither.
In reality, Mr Netanyahu’s offer was as hollow as his previous utterances about Palestinian statehood.
Begin, a rightwing hawk too, welcomed Sadat to the parliament, where Israeli legislators listened intently to the Egyptian leader’s vision of peace.
More than 35 years later, Mr Netanyahu and his cohorts are not in the least interested in Mr Abbas’s terms for an end to the conflict, even in the midst of the current nine-month peace talks. They want him to come only if he is ready to concede terms of surrender — recognising as a Jewish state whatever enlarged borders Israel demands.
Coincidentally, the Israeli prime minister made his insincere offer while French president Francois Hollande was in the parliament calling for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mr Hollande was wildly feted during his three-day visit to Israel, if less so during his half-day meeting with Mr Abbas in Ramallah, but his public statements offered little more than platitudes.
Saying he favoured “two states for two peoples”, Mr Hollande warned each leader that they would have to make sacrifices: the Palestinians by abandoning the dream of the refugees’ return, and Israel by ending settlement-building.
The problem is that Mr Netanyahu is not listening even to his friends. This month his housing minister, Uri Ariel, unveiled plans for 24,000 new homes in the occupied territories, the largest spike in construction in more than a decade.
The proposals include 1,200 homes in the so-called E1 area of the West Bank, a strategic strip of land next to Jerusalem that would further erode the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. Washington views Israeli development there as a stake through the heart of the peace process.
Facing pressure from the White House, Mr Netanyahu put the plans on ice but has not cancelled them. On Sunday, a new batch of more than 800 settler homes was approved.
The serial humiliation has proved too much for Palestinian negotiators, who have proffered their resignations. Mr Abbas, however, has promised the United States that he will participate to the bitter end of the talks, due in April.
Strangely, Mr Netanyahu’s offer to Mr Abbas to follow in Sadat’s footsteps came as the CIA declassified documents from the 1978 Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt. They provide an illuminating window on the current negotiations.
The then-US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, privately warned that Israel had less interest in reaching a deal than either Sadat or the US president of the time, Jimmy Carter. “The risk,” he wrote to Mr Carter, “is that you could lose control of the talks and be diverted from the central issues either by Begin’s legalisms or Sadat’s imprecision.”
An almost-verbatim memo should have been sent to Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, before these peace talks began last July. Instead the White House has kept its distance, leaving Israel to dictate both the agenda — Israel’s security — and the molluscular pace.
Aware that no progress has been made, the US is finally preparing to put forward a “framework proposal” in January in the hope of extracting a deal by the April deadline.
There has been speculation that, following the deal struck between the world’s main powers and Iran at the weekend over its nuclear programme, Mr Obama will finally be emboldened to stand strong against Israel and Mr Netanyahu’s intransigence towards the Palestinians.
Any optimism is likely to prove misplaced. It emerged last week that Martin Indyk, US envoy to the talks, had quietly recruited to his team David Makovsky. His roots, like Mr Indyk’s, lie in the hawkish pro-Israel political lobbies that have dominated Washington for decades.
In the summer, Mr Makovsky used a column in the New York Times to berate the European Union for failing to “talk tough” to the Palestinians and dispel their hopes of return for the refugees.
Mr Makovsky has probably been chosen because of his expected usefulness in the talks’ impending endgame. Specialising in the kind of detail valued by Mr Brzezinski, he has drawn up precise maps designed to provide the basis for a final agreement, one premised on extensive land swaps.
Israeli leaders have shied away from setting down on paper their vision of a Palestinian state precisely because they know it would not look much like any kind of state. Mr Makovsky is not so reticent.
His maps annex to Israel the vast majority of the illegal settlements in the West Bank, leaving a series of fingers of Israeli territory throttling a future Palestinian state and compensating the Palestinians with areas of desert, mostly near Gaza.
As the Israeli analyst Noam Sheizaf has observed, Mr Makovsky’s guiding principle in drafting these maps has been “to satiate Israel’s growing appetite for land”.
Washington has learnt nothing from its past success with the Egyptians nor from its more recent failures with the Palestinians. Mr Makovsky may add some necessary clarity, but it is exactly the kind of detail no credible Palestinian leader can ever be persuaded to accept.