Page last updated at 17:16 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

Fear and foreboding in the Middle East

Jerusalem skyline - December 2009
The future of Jerusalem is one of the most emotive issues in the Middle East

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

The Middle East is full of talk of war. Not today, tomorrow or perhaps even next year but the horizon is dark, and people who have to live with the Middle East's grim collection of smouldering problems are finding it hard to look ahead with anything other than foreboding.

By the end of this year, if sanctions have not persuaded Iran to stop what many countries insist is a nuclear weapons programme, the war party in Israel will be pushing for military action.

South Lebanon is once again looking like a tinderbox.

Insults and threats have been bandied back and forth between Syria, Israel and Hezbollah.

In Washington DC, where I have been this week, analysts say Syria has been shipping bigger and better weapons to Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally.

'Disastrous visit'

Israel assumes that there will be another war in Lebanon, and has been training its army to win it, which it could not do last time in 2006.

9 Mar: Israel announces the building of 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem during visit by US Vice-President Joe Biden.
Mr Biden condemns the move
11 Mar: Mr Biden says there must be no delay in resuming Mid-East peace talks, despite the row
12 Mar: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the Israeli move is "deeply negative" for relations
15 Mar: The US says it is waiting for a "formal response" from Israel to its proposals to show it is committed to Mid-East peace
16 Mar: The US envoy to the Mid-East postpones a visit to Israel
17 Mar: President Obama denies there is a crisis with Israel
22 Mar: Hillary Clinton tells pro-Israel lobby group Aipac Israel has to make "difficult but necessary choices" if it wants peace with Palestinians.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu tells Aipac Israel has a "right to build" in Jerusalem
23 Mar: Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu meet behind closed doors with no media access
23 Mar: Jerusalem municipal government approves building of 20 new homes in East Jerusalem
24 Mar: Mr Netanyahu ends Washington trip talking of a "golden" solution amid US silence

And then there is the crisis between the United States, Israel and the Palestinians.

Benjamin Netanyahu's disastrous visit to Washington DC has exposed just how bad this crisis and current US-Israeli relations are.

What is even more serious is that it is centred on the future of Jerusalem, which is about the single most emotive issue in the entire Middle East.

Mr Netanyahu returns home weakened, though his ministers are declaring their support. US President Barack Obama seems to see him as part of the problem.

The precise details of what happened in Washington between Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu are emerging only slowly.

But it is clear that the Americans want Israel to freeze building for Jews in those parts of the holy city that Israel occupied and annexed in 1967.

The Obama administration has concluded that it will be impossible to negotiate peace while Israel continues to settle its people on occupied land.

Mr Netanyahu insists, long and loud, that he wants a peace deal if it guarantees Israeli security.

The Americans agree with that, but not with his insistence that Israel has the right to build whatever and wherever it wants in Jerusalem.

Israel's claim that that the city is its sovereign capital is not accepted by its allies.

Political vacuum

The Americans want to start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Their plan was to wring concessions out of Mr Netanyahu while he was in Washington that they could take to the Palestinians to persuade them to take part.

US Vice-President Joe Biden (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (image from 09/03/10)
Relations between the US and Israel have dipped sharply

The president of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, pulled out after the Israelis announced a big building project at the Ramat Shlomo settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.

The US Vice-President Joe Biden was in Jerusalem at the time to get the talks going. Embarrassed and angry, he condemned Israel's plans.

Mr Netanyahu's visit to Washington - far from ending the crisis between Israel and its most important ally - seems to have made things worse.

What is now forming around the row over Jerusalem is an old-fashioned Middle Eastern political vacuum.

When there is no political process to absorb some heat and give people even a glint of hope for the future, the result tends to be violent.

King Abdullah of Jordan, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994, has told newspapers in Amman that Israel needs to decide between war and peace.

American pressure

If it wants peace, he says it has to stop settling Jews on occupied land.

The US State Department and the White House employ many Middle East experts who know that even if they manage to start negotiations the chances of success are low.

They are trying anyway, because the alternatives seem much worse.

But the reality is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are in good shape to negotiate, even assuming that they want to try (in fact they have only dabbled with the idea because of American pressure).

Mr Netanyahu's coalition government depends on the votes of nationalists who want no compromise with the Palestinians.

Mr Abbas is isolated and weak. It is hard to see how he could deliver any agreement he made when the Palestinian national movement is split down the middle between Fatah, his faction, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

Mr Obama has declared that Middle East peace is a strategic priority for the United States.

But just glance across the region, from Jerusalem to Beirut, then on to Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran and further east to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Never mind making peace, just avoiding war in the places that are not already fighting is going to be hard enough, and perhaps impossible.

Map of Jerusalem
1 Gilo: 850 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Nov 2009
2 Pisgat Zeev: 600 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Jan 2010
3 Sheikh Jarrah: Municipality approves the building of 20 new apartments on the site of an old hotel
4 Ramat Shlomo: 1,600 homes approved for publication and planning objections in Mar 2010
5 Silwan: Demolition orders on 88 Palestinian homes built without difficult-to-get permits - Israel planning controversial renewal project
6 West Bank barrier: Making Palestinian movement between West Bank and Jerusalem harder - Israel says it's for security

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