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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own