How far away is a Middle East peace deal? It could be as little as 13 miles

With Jewish settlements the biggest barrier to any agreement, Catrina Stewart visits Ariel, deep inside the occupied West Bank

Unfurling a large map of the West Bank, Palestinian cartographer Khalil Tafakji picks out Ariel, a large Jewish settlement that lies deep in the occupied West Bank.

With his finger he traces an outline of Israel's vision for annexing this area that would, he says, effectively carve a Palestinian state into two halves.

A small town of 20,000 residents, Ariel is just a short drive from Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean coastline along a purpose-built highway. It boasts an impressive sports centre and a new theatre that is to open shortly, and its college was recently upgraded to a university.

And yet its proximity to Israel's most thriving metropolis is misleading: Ariel is some 13 miles inside the Green Line, as the 1967 borders of Israel are known, and its location could hinder the territorial contiguity of an independent and viable Palestinian state, presenting a grave challenge to the direct peace talks newly revived by Barack Obama.

The settlements, illegal under international law and never so numerous in the West Bank as they are now, have unexpectedly emerged as one of the most serious challenges to achieving an historic peace deal.

When an Israeli freeze on construction in West Bank Jewish settlements expires tomorrow, it will pave the way for an avalanche of new building by ideological settlers, who remain deeply opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

"This is a problem," says Mr Tafakji, pointing out on the map, how Israel only has to insert a well-placed checkpoint along Route 60, the West Bank's main north-south axis, to control movement. "If Israel were to annex this whole area, it would mean dividing the West Bank into two parts – north and south."

Ariel is regarded as part of Israel's so-called national consensus, a term that refers to the settlement blocs, encompassing many acres of unspoiled land, that are expected to remain in Israeli hands under a final peace deal. Unlike the other blocs, however, Ariel is situated many miles away from the Green Line.

Refer to Ariel as a settlement within earshot of its fiery mayor, Ron Nachman, and one will be given short shrift. "This is a city. I don't want it called a settlement," he says angrily. "Give me the [due] respect as mayor of the city."

Terminology is important. The residents of Ariel do not see themselves as settlers. Most of them are Russian immigrants, who moved here in search of affordable housing and good schools. "I live here because it's a nice city. It's good for children and it's good for housing," says Rueven Cohen, an Anglo Israeli who works in the mayor's office.

But Ariel received a rude awakening last month when some of Israel's most renowned writers, actors and directors pledged to boycott five theatre companies' performances in Ariel's new cultural centre. Israeli academics added their support to the boycott, saying they would not lecture at the university or indeed any other institution in occupied territory.

The boycott reignited the debate on the settlements, long seen as a cancer by left-wingers, but largely ignored by mainstream Israelis. For the first time, it appeared that Ariel might not be as much a part of the consensus as its supporters thought. As Mr Cohen admits, "it was an insight into how Ariel is seen by other Israelis".

Since Israel captured the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967, some 300,000 Israeli settlers have made their homes among the hilltops there. While economic factors are for many the primary consideration, a core of extremist settlers is fired by a religious zeal to reclaim biblical Israel.

Israel hinted at a compromise on construction yesterday, an 11th-hour concession to prevent the Palestinians from walking out of the talks if construction resumes on Sunday. The Palestinians have argued that Israel cannot negotiate for peace in good faith while entrenching its occupation of Palestinian territory.

"Israel is prepared to reach a compromise acceptable to all parties," an Israeli senior government official said in comments quoted by Agence France Press, but added "there cannot be zero construction" in the West Bank. Israel has previously suggested freezing projects outside of the major blocs.

Washington had hoped to convince Israel to extend the freeze by three months, giving the two sides a window in which to draw the borders of a future Palestinian state. But Israel has firmly rejected a plan that would put borders on the agenda before security.

The hint of compromise from the Israeli camp will come as a relief to US President Barack Obama, who has dominated the efforts to bring the two sides back to direct negotiations after a near-two-year break. But in his quest to achieve a framework agreement within a year, he risks serious damage to his political credibility should the talks break down at an early stage. In an impassioned appeal to the UN General Assembly this week, Mr Obama urged a cynical world to set aside doubts and help achieve an agreement that would end decades of bloodshed and occupation. Arguing that it was "now or never", he promised "this time it will be different".

Even as he spoke, though, settlers were preparing the bulldozers and cement trucks to start laying the foundations of a new settlement amid much pomp and ceremony. In Ariel, the mayor is looking to build 100 new houses almost immediately to house Israelis pulled out of Gaza during Israel's disengagement there five years ago.

The prospect of Israel repeating such an exercise in the West Bank is treated with derision and prophecies of a civil war that would tear the country in two. Under a peace deal, the 80,000 settlers living outside the consensus blocs would probably have to withdraw, although the implementation could take decades.

"To forcefully expel 80,000 in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank]... will break the backbone of Israeli society, I am convinced of that," says Dani Dayan, leader of the settlers' Yesha council, and a former lecturer at Ariel's college.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
News
Tovey says of homeless charity the Pillion Trust : 'If it weren't for them and the park attendant I wouldn't be here today.'
people
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little