EAST JERUSALEM -- To the outsider, it looks like a poor piece of land to fight over: A sand and scrub hillside where, on a winter’s day, a chill wind whips over the boulders and blows through to the bone.
On one side stand the minarets of Arab East Jerusalem, hemmed in by Israel’s security wall. Ahead, across a valley, lies the Jewish settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, a sprawling suburb of neat streets and anonymous housing blocks.
Between the two feels like a bleak no-man’s land despite the presence of many Bedouin families.
But that is deceptive: No patch of ground in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is more bitterly contested, or more important to White House hopes of restarting peace talks.
At the heart of the dispute is Israel’s policy of building homes for Jewish settlers building communities built on land that the Palestinians feel is vital to a future state.
“We are a force to be reckoned with,” said Yigal Dilmony, deputy general manager of the Yesha Council which represents 360,000 Jews who have settled in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (what they call Judea and Samaria). “The reality on this territory is that we can’t be ignored.”
Late last year, the Israeli government announced it would speed up the start of construction of around 3,500 homes for settlers, connecting Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem in an area known as E1 on the planners’ maps.
The settlers’ progress appeared unstoppable. But in 2013, the political landscape at home and abroad shifted.
In December, in a rare public show of unity, every member of the United Nations Security Council except the United States condemned the expansion plans. In January, U.N, human rights investigators said Israel must stop settlement expansion and remove all Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank, saying that its practices could be subject to prosecution as possible war crimes.
President Barack Obama’s impending visit to Israel and the West Bank in March will only highlight the issue of the legality of settlements.
And within Israel, January’s elections saw the balance of politics shift, if not decisively then certainly significantly, toward the center and away from reflexively supporting the settlements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still struggling to knit these disparate strands into a governing alliance, but it is likely he will need to bring together his traditional right-wing supporters and the new more moderate voices.
And few issues divide the Israeli establishment more than that of settlements.
Here’s the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Dan Meridor, speaking on Israeli radio on Feb. 7:
"There is a discrepancy between our claim that we are willing to accept a two-state solution and the fact that we don't limit the construction in the settlements to the settlement blocs.”
Meridor is a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party who failed to win re-election. But his voice has always tended toward the pragmatic.
"I'm not saying we should stop construction in Jerusalem and in the settlement blocs, but we must not build beyond them, because by doing so we promote a very dangerous situation to Zionism, of one state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, which endangers us more than anything else," he said.
Israeli media cite anonymous sources in Netanyahu’s office to say he’s not planning another freeze on settlements. On Monday he reiterated his support for two state-solution, albeit unenthusiastically.
The battle over settlements centers around mutually exclusive visions of Israel’s future – a two-state solution versus an Israel decisively laying claim to land captured in the 1967 war with Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
For Palestinians, settlements and an eventual Palestinian state cannot be seen as separate issues. E1, the plot of land near East Jerusalem, is a vital corridor without which their territory would be severed, north from south.
The construction of the thousands of homes would render impractical if not impossible the foundation of a meaningful state of their own.
“My family has been here for 80 years,” said an Arab farmer tending his sheep and chickens on the disputed parcel of land known as E1.
“This is our land but they’ve told us we’ll have to go,” said the farmer, who preferred his name not be used. “I don’t know what will happen to us.”
So upon this seemingly barren corridor rests America’s chances of reviving a peace process that has been comatose for two years.
Leaders of the settler movement see clouds gathering as Obama’s visit draws closer. But they remain defiant.
"We understand that Obama as a second term president is much more dangerous to the settlements than the first term Obama and we need to keep our eyes wide open,’’ Dilmony said.
"When he comes here he should meet us, the settlers, and see the situation for himself,” Dilmony said.
On only point is Dilmony likely to be in agreement with the US administration.
“Peace can only come from the people who live here,’’ he said.