Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor
The effect of Barack Obama's rhetoric on the Middle East is one of the most important, fascinating and utterly elusive elements in geo-strategic considerations at the moment. I find myself veering between Obama-youthful optimism that he really is speaking to the Muslim masses in a way that matters, and world-weary cynicism that has to ask: "Where's the beef, Jack."
If Obama produces beneficial change through inspirational leadership, his rhetoric will be seen as among the most powerful words in history. On the other hand, if he says all this beautiful stuff and nothing happens and he doesn't do anything about it, he will have been just the crooner who distracted the world with sweet serenades while it declined into peril and possibly misery.
But this is a column about a more modest subject. One of the few absolutely concrete, no-compromise demands Obama has made of any state is his call for an end to Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. Obama's Cairo speech was uncompromising: Jewish settlements in the West Bank must stop.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been equally tough. There is no exception for "natural growth" or anything else: settlements must stop.
This is about as clear as mud, and your humble correspondent is merely one among millions who cannot make out quite what these words actually mean. Their political purpose is clear. Obama is showing the Muslims that he can be tough on Israel, too. But I do not know what the practical purpose of the words are.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday responded to Obama's speech with his own declaration: "We have no intention of building new settlements or expropriating additional land for existing settlements." That strikes me as reasonable. Israel will occupy no more Palestinian land for settlements. But Netanyahu's position allows for natural growth and for all the growth now planned, while Obama's people give the impression they are against this.
A clue to the confusion, and perhaps the double and triple game the Obama administration is playing, lies in the refusal of US spokesmen to say what "an end to Israeli settlements" means.
Does "no natural growth" mean that if one mother in a settlement has a baby, then another person in the same settlement has to move out? That's nonsense as it could not be measured or enforced.
Understanding the confusion requires two pieces of background. The settlements grew after the 1967 war, the second war Israel fought with Arab armies bent on its destruction. As a result of the war, Israel reunified Jerusalem and formally annexed some of the city's neighbourhoods into Israel proper. It also set up settlements in strategic locations on Palestinian land.
There are three types of settlers. Fairly secular Jews who just want cheap housing live in big settlement blocs that are in effect suburbs of Jerusalem. Most of these settlers live close to the 1967 borders.
Then there are the ultra-Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem, many of whom don't work and also need cheap housing. They, too, generally live very close to the 1967 border.
Finally there are the ideological Zionists who believe in the biblical claims of Jews to Judea and Samaria, the Jewish names for the West Bank. They live mainly in settlements deep inside Palestinian land. Some live, provocatively, in the middle of Palestinian population centres. Some are official settlements and others are illegal (under Israeli law) outposts. Almost all mainstream Israelis agree that the illegal outposts will be uprooted the minute there is an agreement with the Palestinians.
A critical consideration is that in every serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiation the Palestinians have accepted that the main settlement blocs right next to the 1967 border will be retained by Israel in any final settlement. However, the Palestinians will be compensated by an equal amount of territory of equal quality from within Israel.
This means that places such as Maale Audumin and Gush Etzion will always be part of Israel. From Israel's point of view it is inconceivable that they could be prevented from normal development within their existing boundaries. George W. Bush recognised this in a letter to Ariel Sharon in 2004, but the Obama administration says it is not bound by that letter.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration also does not envisage those settlements becoming part of a Palestinian state. Thus the administration's vagueness about what it means by no more settlements shows it is playing a game with everyone.
A couple of other facts to bear in mind. We are not talking about huge numbers of people. There are seven million Israelis. About 280,000 of them live in settlements beyond the areas of Jerusalem that Israel has annexed, and every peace plan has always envisaged that a good number of these will stay with Israel. Nonetheless, when peace is struck, Israel will have to forcibly withdraw settlers, as it did from Sinai when it made peace with Egypt and from Gaza a couple of years ago.
Israel has not authorised any new settlements since 1999. Its critics argue that there has been some bad faith in that new neighbourhoods of existing settlements are sometimes constructed a kilometre or two away from existing settlements, thus taking new land.
One problem is there is no map of what the boundaries of the settlements are. Netanyahu has promised to take no new land and the Americans would be right to expect him to stick to that commitment.
But in reality this is a tiny issue in the Middle East, and not remotely a serious obstacle to peace. The Palestinians have several times been offered a state in land equivalent to all of the West Bank and Gaza and a capital in East Jerusalem and refused it. A few hundred or so Israeli housing units are not the key to the future of the Muslim world. But, for the moment, Obama is dealing in symbols. And he is doing so, for the most part, symbolically.