Barely six months into Barack Obama's presidency and public tensions between the US and Israel, unthinkable for most of the past two decades, have already spilled over into open recriminations. Israel will not take orders or accept "edicts" from Washington, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declared, while reportedly branding two of Obama's most senior aides – Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod – as "self-hating Jews".
A posse of Obama emissaries has now been dispatched to Jerusalem to smooth Israeli feathers with talk of a "discussion among friends". In the face of intense Israeli resistance, Obama's demand for a "complete freeze" on Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is now expected to become a fudge about 2,500 more homes currently under construction.
But all the signs are that Washington is determined to use pressure to halt settlement expansion, combined with some gestures of Arab "normalisation" with Israel, to create the conditions for restarting peace talks later this year. Assuming that those negotiations flounder, as in the past, the administration is then expected to produce a peace plan of its own – perhaps based around a provisional West Bank state, with the most contentious issues of Jerusalem and refugees once again postponed till a later date.
If that's the direction of travel, it's not a recipe for lasting peace but for further conflict. For all the welcome US shift from its blank-cheque policy towards its closest Middle Eastern ally, Obama's attempt to balance a freeze on illegal Israeli settlements in illegally occupied territory with the kind of diplomatic concessions the Arab world has always held back for a final peace agreement is a pretty lopsided kind of exchange.
For Palestinians on the ground, even more urgent than a halt to settlement expansion is effective pressure on Israel to take its heel off their windpipe: to lift the life-choking checkpoints, halt the construction of the land-grabbing wall, and end the continuing siege of the Gaza Strip, which has left tens of thousands of people living in rubble since the destruction and slaughter unleashed on them in January.
But more fundamentally still, from the point of view of any lasting settlement, is the continuing veto by the US on talks with the Palestinians' elected representatives, who won the closest thing to free elections possible under military occupation three years ago. Obama acknowledged support for Hamas in his Cairo speech last month, but insisted the movement could only "play a role" if it signed up to conditions he knows it will not accept.
Since Israel's onslaught on Gaza, Hamas has resumed its earlier ceasefire: last month, only two rockets were fired into Israel from the strip. And the Hamas leader, Khalid Mish'al, has reiterated its commitment to an indefinite end to hostilities in exchange for full withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and recognition of the refugees' right to return.
It should be clear enough that no settlement is going to succeed unless it commands broad support or acquiescence on both sides: most obviously from the Palestinians, the victims of dispossession, ethnic cleansing and occupation, many of whom have little to lose. Recognising that basic reality, Britain's parliamentary foreign affairs committee called on the government at the weekend to end its ban on talking to Hamas – echoing influential voices in the US and Israel itself.
But the only deal envisaged by the US is one with the unpopular Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as president expired last January. As the Democratic chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, John Kerry, put it recently: "Hamas has already won one election – we cannot allow them to win another".
And far from supporting the Palestinian national unity necessary to make any peace agreement stick, America and its allies are doing everything possible to deepen the split between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement. In fact, the US, Britain and the EU make support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) dependent on a continuing security crackdown against Hamas activists in the West Bank – justified as fighting terrorism – which makes reconciliation between the two Palestinian parties ever more far-fetched.
As a result, more than 1,000 political prisoners are reported by human rights groups to be held without trial in PA jails, while extrajudicial killings, torture and raids on Hamas-linked social institutions have become routine by security forces trained and funded by the US and the EU. And heading the effort to build up Abbas's forces that carry out these operations is US Lieutenant-General Keith Dayton – increasingly regarded as the real power in the West Bank – supported by British officials and the Foreign Office-sponsored security firm Libra Advisory Group, fresh from working for the occupation forces in Iraq.
Needless to say, all the governments and security outfits concerned reject any link with torture and insist their training is aimed at overcoming human rights violations – while Hamas has retaliated with its own arrests and abuses against Fatah members in Gaza. And the destructive impact of the mobilisation of the PA as an instrument for policing the Israeli occupation isn't only felt in the split between Fatah and Hamas, but within Fatah itself, which is holding its first congress for 20 years next week.
The aim of Abbas, under US and EU guidance, is to complete the transformation of Fatah from a national liberation movement into the governing party of a state that doesn't exist. Money and gerrrymandering are likely to see off internal opposition, such as from the grassroots West Bank Fatah leader Hussam Khader, who calls for unity with Hamas and a twin strategy of resistance and negotiation.
"We expect nothing from Obama", Khader told me yesterday. Even if Abbas were to sign up to the half-baked collection of walled-in West Bank bantustans masquerading as an independent state that currently seems the most the US might be ready to squeeze out of Israel, he would not be able to sustain or legitimise it. Until the US feels it necessary to use its leverage with Israel to deliver something closer to a genuinely just settlement, the prospect must be of renewed violence, with ever greater global consequences.
Seumas Milne, associate comment editor for the Guardian.