Israel’s pugnacious prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems most comfortable when he’s in a fight. Sometimes he fights with justification, as he did last month in retaliating for rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, where the ruling Hamas Party fervently denies Israel’s right to exist and caters to even more extreme factions in its midst.

But in the West Bank, where the more moderate Fatah leadership has tried to negotiate a peace accord, it is Netanyahu who is the aggressor.

Last week, in a remarkable act of arrogance, the prime minister announced that he would expand Israeli settlements on a pivotal strip of Palestinian land near Jerusalem. For good measure, he said he’d withhold $100 million in tax revenue paid by Palestinians and collected by Israel.

The move, precipitated by a U.N. vote upgrading the status of Palestine, is an assault not just on the Palestinians but also on decades of U.S. efforts to secure a Middle East peace and a threat to U.S. interests in the region.

If built, the new housing would separate East Jerusalem, the prospective capital of any future Palestinian state, from the rest of the West Bank. Palestinians, already geographically divided, would see their territory cleaved again, crippling chances for the “two-state” solution at the heart of the peace process and grievously wounding American hopes for stability and improved relations with the Arab world.

Netanyahu’s excuse for this foolishness is that the United Nations had the audacity last week to grant a request from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Palestine be granted “observer” status, which Abbas sees as an alternative route to independence. In the short term, it could put Israeli tactics against the Palestinians under tighter international scrutiny.

In our view, Abbas’ strategy is pointlessly provocative. Regardless of U.N. status, he can attain a meaningful Palestinian state only by negotiating borders and other issues with Israel.

Hamas’ control of Gaza, meanwhile, has made peace much more difficult for Israel.

But that’s no excuse for further provocation, which Netanyahu rarely resists. Since reclaiming the prime ministership in 2009, he has significantly worsened peace prospects.

Rather than marginalizing Hamas and boosting the stature of the more moderate Abbas — the strategy of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert — Netanyahu has done the opposite. After imposing a brief moratorium on settlements, he refused to extend it and failed to follow through on negotiations begun by Olmert. That is what drove Abbas to the U.N. By cutting off funds and taking Palestinian land, he is now driving frustrated Palestinians into the hands of Hamas.

With hundreds of thousands of settlers now living in Palestinian territory and their political impact growing, there is little likelihood that Netanyahu will change tack unless pressured to do so, which is exactly what the U.S. should do.

The United States and Israel have many shared objectives, most prominently in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But the cause of the Israeli settlers, who claim a biblical right to land Palestinians possess, is not one of them. Just the opposite. Religiously rooted land grabs by the Israelis should be opposed as vigorously as similar tactics by the Arabs.

Netanyahu’s combative stance may play well in Israeli politics, where he is running for re-election next month. But he is acting less like an ally of the United States than like a man trying to take advantage of a friendship. His actions should not go unanswered.




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