Leading article: Inch by inch in the Middle East

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The Independent Online

It would be wonderful if the optimism shown by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, after his talks this week with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was to prove justified. And it is certainly true that the message being put out by Mr Netanyahu in his tour of European capitals is, on the whole, a positive one. Apart from the specific exception of Jerusalem, the new Israeli coalition government does seem prepared to call some form of halt to settlement expansion on the West Bank as a concession to get peace talks going with the Palestinians.

This is what the Palestinians have been demanding as the first essential step before they can resume direct talks, and it is what President Obama has been pressing on the Israelis. The hope is that by offering this, in however a limited way, the Israelis will make possible direct talks with the Palestinian Authority next month, when Washington may unveil its ideas for a comprehensive peace settlement.

The emphasis should be on the hope rather than the expectation, however. A temporary cessation of new settlement building may be the essential precondition of talks, but it is not a decisive step towards peace in itself. Even on the settlements there is still concern at just how far the Israelis are prepared to go in changing the facts on the ground. Netanyahu and his Cabinet have made absolutely clear that any restriction does not apply to Jerusalem, which they regard as the historic capital of the Israeli nation whatever the claims of the Palestinians. The Israeli Prime Minister has also tried to draw a distinction between settlement expansion as such, by which he means increasing the land under Jewish habitation in the occupied West Bank, and the building of additional homes within the settlements, which he terms "natural growth".

Neither point goes down well with the Palestinians, who seek a capital in East Jerusalem and an actual reversal of settlement building. Go beyond this issue into the thorny questions of the return of refugees, the future of Gaza, and the definition of borders and you have two sides who are as apart as ever, if not further.

US pressure may be enough to get talks going, which is good. But it won't be enough to bring the parties to some kind of mutual understanding, let alone agreement. On that, Middle East opinion remains sceptical, and with reason.