Surrounded by aides, including one whose only task seems to be light his cigarettes, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sits in a vast presidential office and speaks of his ambition to create a Palestinian state.
However, outside his sprawling compound on the hills of the West Bank town of Ramallah, reality on the ground is different — his dream is being built over by ever-expanding Jewish settlements.
From Ramallah to the sacred city of Jerusalem 20km away, and all across the West Bank, the sprawling new communities perched on hilltops that dominate the landscape are testament to a shifting political geography and a reminder of the 64-year-old conflict and its winners and losers.
As Abbas resists pressure to resume talks on statehood until Israel halts construction, some Palestinians say he is too late to secure a viable national territory — partly because former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, his predecessor, failed to grasp the challenge of the settlements when he agreed an interim peace nearly 20 years ago.
“There will be no Palestinian state,” said Khalil Tafakji, a geographer who advised Arafat.
Tafakji says the late Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader, in exile for much of his life, did not appreciate how far Israelis had gone by the early 1990s in permanently colonizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem, captured in war from Jordan in 1967.
“Look at the facts on the ground,” Tafakji said two weeks ago as he reviewed maps of Israeli towns and infrastructure, which the UN deems illegal on occupied land.
“There is no geographic contiguity between Palestinian villages and cities,” he said. “They have expanded settlements, built bridges and tunnels. We now have two states inside one state.”
Aside from its tightening grip on Arab East Jerusalem, Israel now directly controls about 58 percent of the West Bank, while the rest is administered by Abbas’ Palestinian Authority.
The Oslo peace accords of 1993 left it to future negotiators to agree the “final status” of the division of territory between Israel and a Palestinian state. Failure to reach agreement has, in effect, left Israel drawing up its own map of the future.
Nabil Shaath, a senior figure in the PLO and a veteran of peace negotiations going back decades, concurs with Tafakji’s gloomy view of “facts on the ground” making it ever harder to establish a state.
“Every day we lose territory on the ground, we lose sovereignty, we lose people,” he said in Ramallah, where the Authority is based, in the hope of one day being able to set up a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.
“They are grabbing as much land as possible to control the situation on the ground,” he added.
“Israel should not change the status quo on the ground during the negotiations,” Shaath said. “They should cease settlement building and any violation of the Oslo accord, but they want to draw the map of their land grab.”
Tafakji says it might have been possible a decade ago to share Jerusalem with Israel, but says that is no longer the case due to a policy of settling Jews in — and around — the Arab East, including the Old City revered by three religions, as well as legal moves to bar Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from returning to the city if they spend time living abroad.
“Today you cannot divide Jerusalem,” he said.