Talking Politics

Building on nothing

With the issue of settlements now at the fore, politicians are confronting quite how far away peace in the Middle East actually is.

By Alex Stevenson

Extracting any optimism from the current state of the peace process is a tough ask.

Following the slow death of the negotiations entered into after George Bush's Annapolis talks, which sought to make progress on the little issues and ignore the bigger ones, a new reality has been acknowledged: the big problems remain. The ever-growing Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the biggest problem of all.

What they show is how a physical barrier is so much harder to overcome than an ideological one. Look how easily Netanyahu dispensed with his theoretical objections to a two-state solution. Look how hard he is finding reconciling the views of his right-wing party colleagues with Palestinian demands.

There are around 300,000 Israeli settlements in the West Bank, occupied for 42 years since the 1967 war. Roughly 2,500 units are currently in construction. Palestinians insist a two-state solution cannot be reached if they continue to grow. So does the international community.

Unfortunately Israel is not in the mood to listen. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is a right-winger whose coalition reflects - indeed, goes further than - his own views. Far-right foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has suggested there will not be any further agreements for decades. Deputy prime minister Moshe Ya'alon wants more resistance to the world's demands. Cabinet members recently visited a West Bank settlement, giving their tacit approval. Netanyahu is only half-inclined to fight against them.

Yet fight he must, for there is no point making the current trip to Europe where he will meet with anti-settlement leaders Gordon Brown, German chancellor Angela Merkel and US envoy George Mitchell. They will pressure him to freeze the expansion of settlements. He will try to limit the period of the agreed halt to as little as six months. Cynics say on the ground he will allow the construction of new settlements by claiming they had already been 'planned'. The cover of 'natural growth' must be taken into account, too. There are ways and means for Netanyahu to satisfy both - and neither - his domestic and international audiences.

This just goes to show quite how meaningless the words are when direct actions on the ground contradict them. For now, the purpose of the international deal is to bully, to demand, to insist that Israel limits its settlement activity. Doing so is important. But it is also a long way from any kind of real deal.

Netanyahu's spokesman has already played down the prospects for the trip, in language that is about as depressingly hopeless as it gets.

"The prime minister expects there to be a certain degree of progress, but no breakthrough is expected."

After the blithe ignorance studied by Bush's administration in its last days comes a bleaker but more realistic understanding of the current state of play.

There is little optimism to be gained from acknowledging quite how big a problem the settlement issue is. The talking continues, but so does the building.