ALTHOUGH President Obama seems to have lost his personal interest in the Israeli-Palestinian situation his decision to send Vice-President Biden to the region this week to support the start of “proximity” negotiations between the two sides is very welcome. How, then, should the United States interpret the insult with which Mr Biden was greeted on his arrival in Israel -- the announcement that approval had been given for 1'600 homes to be built in East Jerusalem for ultra-Orthodox Jews? The status of East Jerusalem is still a matter of international dispute although prime minister Netanyahu insists on treating the area as if it unquestionably belongs to Israel.

Vice-President Biden robustly condemned the announcement, saying it “undermines the trust we need to make negotiations a success”. Mr Netanyahu's response was very interesting and revealing. He told Mr Biden that he had not known the announcement about the building in East Jerusalem was due to be made and then added: “If I'd known, I would have postponed the authorization by a week or two since we have no intention of provoking anyone.” Clearly, in Netanyahu's mind the only error was in the timing of the announcement. He is blind to the fact that its substance will provoke everyone except for his supporters in Israel. It has already been condemned by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the European Union and by Britain. Other similar reactions will surely follow.