Three weeks along- the latest round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are in crisis. At midnight on Sunday, a 10 month moratorium on the construction of new Israeli Settlements in the West Bank came to an end. Within hours bulldozers and cement mixers moved in as construction resumed and cheerful settlers flocked around news cameras to express their delight at the further encroachment into what, under international law, is Palestinian territory.
Debate over the history of Israel's formation and where its borders legitimately lie fills hundreds of books and articles with little consensus; but its hard to see how the specific issue of West Bank Settlements can be justified. The land was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and categorically falls outside the 55% of the British Palestinian Mandate allocated to Israel under the UN Partition Plan (or indeed the 78% that Israeli forces actually took control of when the state came into being). Since then, Israel has settled some 430 000 of its citizens there- in direct violation of international legal prohibitions on settling occupied territory (as the West Bank and Gaza Strip are recognised to be).
The network of checkpoints and 'settler-only' roads that come as part of the package wreck havoc on the lives of Palestinians, frequently cutting them off from their farms, schools and medical facilities - forcing them to add miles to their daily journeys and subjecting them to the humiliation and harassment of searches and long waits whilst trying to go about their lives. Meanwhile acts of violence by Settlers against Palestinians (of which there were 429 in 2008 alone including beatings, shootings and destruction of crops) regularly go unchecked by the Israeli security forces.
It is little wonder then, that there are now fears of the Palestinians withdrawing from the talks. Israeli President Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whilst calling on the settlers to show restraint (with little tangible effect) is, at the same time, peddling the tenuously weak line that an extension of the moratorium was never a precondition for talks and that therefore Palestinain Authority President Mahmoud Abbas should stay at the table. He may be factually correct but he cannot honestly believe that talks can continue in good faith at the same time as Israel physically and brazenly furthers its violation of international law and increases its unjustifiable restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. "Settlements or peace" is a phrase that no one wanted to hear, but it is fast becoming a reality.
Of course this is not the only or even the greatest obstacle to the talks that Obama, perhaps naively, suggested could lead to a Palestinian state peacefully coexisting alongside Israel within one year. Even if the talks were to succeed, the next enormous challenge will relate to Hamas- the abhorent radical Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, does not recognise Israel's right to exist and us not even indirectly involved in the current negotiations.
However, the Settlements issue is the immediate danger that threatens to derail any hope of an agreement. If it is properly addressed by an Israeli administration willing to make sacrifices for peace, then it could in fact be early triumph for the talks and result in a working relationship that could ultimately facilitate overall agreements. If this happens, and is supported by ordinary Palestinians, then even the likes of Hamas will struggle to retain their current uncompromising position. On the other hand, if the construction is allowed to continue and thus scupper dialogue, the talks could go down nothing more than the latest in a long line of failed attempts to bring peace to this troubled region.
Soon every side will have to compromise- but right now the ball is in Israel's court.