x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Israel cannot avoid realities on the ground

This week, an iPhone application has managed to make plain what Israeli negotiators had hoped to sweep under the rug: that despite a 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlements, construction in the West Bank has steadily plodded on.

This week, an iPhone application has managed to make plain what Israeli negotiators had hoped to sweep under the rug: that despite a 10-month moratorium on Israeli settlements, construction in the West Bank has steadily plodded on. Facts on the Ground, which maps Israeli settlements throughout the disputed territory, shows the unsettling reach of Israeli ambitions as Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has promised to end peace talks if Israel failed to renew the settlement freeze.

His resolve will be tested in the coming days, as settlers have begun new construction in a show of defiance. Next week, at Mr Abbas's meeting with the Arab League, not only the Palestinian Authority but Arab states in general will have to decide how to move forward in the face of Israel's instransigence. Many wonder what form progress can take. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at the head of a government that has yet to define the borders of a country 60 years after its founding. Its fragmented political leadership is reluctant to face the reality of demographics: half a million Israeli settlers are trying to fulfil the Zionist vision of populating the West Bank with 1.3 million by the turn of the century. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, meanwhile, are predicted to pass the four million mark by 2015. Such growth does not call for construction freezes; it calls for a much larger and comprehensive strategy grounded in the reality of limited land.

The freeze expiration has given negotiators a temporary - and tangible - bone of contention. But the fracas is a distraction. Borders, economics, security and decades of injustice are the questions that Israel must answer instead of letting settlers hijack the debate. If Mr Netanyahu truly believes in laying a "historic framework agreement", as he told Mr Abbas this week, he has been led astray by a sideshow.

The Palestinian Authority may feel the walls closing in after Israel's latest duplicity. In reality, it is Mr Netanyahu and his fractious coalition that are digging themselves deeper into a hole. As the US continues to assert its role as chief mediator of these long-awaited talks, it would do well to put pressure on its ally. If it wants peace, Israel must address the long-unanswered questions upon which the future of Israel and Palestine both rely.