The Obama administration finally managed to launch “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in May, but expectations remain low that these indirect negotiations will produce any real breakthroughs. In fact, many Israeli officials and experts – Left and Right – feel the window for an envisioned two-state solution is already nearly closed, leading some  to openly espouse other options.

The quiet approach
Since taking office last year, US President Barack Obama and his senior diplomatic team have been clear in their assessment that the status quo between Israel and the PA is “unsustainable,” and the only option is a negotiated end of the long-standing conflict by creating a viable, peaceful Palestinian state alongside Israel. But this White House was unable to revive talks largely due to tactical blunders. In particular, its one-sided pressure on Israel over continued settlement building in the West Bank and east Jerusalem only fed the Palestinian inclination to let America do the negotiating for them.

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After Washington openly feuded with Jerusalem to little avail, US special Mideast envoy George Mitchell switched to more quiet diplomacy and finally found the right formula to pull the Palestinians into talks. Mitchell received a commitment from PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas to combat Palestinian incitement against Israel, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to curb any provocative Jewish building projects in east Jerusalem.


“As both parties know, if either takes significant actions during the proximity talks that we judge would seriously undermine trust, we will hold them accountable and ensure that negotiations continue,” said a State Department release.

Netanyahu applauded the PA’s decision to start proximity talks without preconditions, and stressed the importance of quickly moving to direct negotiations. The Obama administration also wants to see direct talks as soon as possible – a move Jerusalem says is necessary before the core issues can be resolved. But PA officials are now insisting they will never enter direct talks until Israel imposes a total settlement freeze.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has informed PA leaders that it will not unveil bridging proposals or its own comprehensive Middle East peace plan before the parties have had a chance to hold direct, substantive talks on final-status issues.

Gloomy forecast
Even as Mitchell closed in on the deal that finally got the talks rolling, most Israeli cabinet ministers expressed serious doubts that the process will bear fruit. The consensus among Netanyahu’s coalition partners was that the PA’s primary goal at present is to portray Israel as the obstacle to peace in hopes the international community will intervene and create a Palestinian state – something which could then be used to great advantage in carrying on the next stage of conflict with Israel.

Even Silvan Shalom and Dan Meridor, both prominent ministers on the dovish side of Netanyahu’s Likud faction, voiced undisguised pessimism.

Shalom bluntly predicted the negotiations were doomed from the start due to Yasser Arafat’s rejectionist legacy, dating back to the failed Camp David summit 10 years ago. “I see it as a dead end,” Shalom offered.

Meridor also insisted the talks will lead nowhere, since the Palestinians are trying to avoid making “tough decisions… to end the conflict.”

Such gloominess runs even deeper among veteran analysts in Israel who are freer to speak their mind – to the point that hawks and doves alike are openly pronouncing the demise of the two-state solution, despite the overwhelming support it still enjoys among world leaders.

“The fight for the two-state solution is obsolete,” insists Dr. Meron Benvenisti, a leading political scientist and author on the Israeli Left.

“I don’t think the Palestinians want a Palestinian state. I don’t think they are capable of delivering a Palestinian state,” concludes Prof. Eytan Gilboa, who teaches political science at Bar-Ilan University.

Considered the foremost Israeli expert on US-Israel relations, Gilboa recently told The Christian Edition that, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama are completely ignoring that Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank are incapable of reaching an agreement. How will they be able to reach an agreement with Israel?”

The Israeli public believes that even if Israel makes compromises beyond the already generous offers of former premiers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, it will not bring peace, adds writer and strategic analyst Dr. Jonathan Rynhold. “We believe it would be worse, because there is no partner… we need to have someone to give the keys to.”

Cold feet
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, who was prime minister Ariel Sharon’s national security advisor and today is a strategic analyst at Tel Aviv University, explained Israel’s dilemma regarding the moribund peace process.

“Everyone wants to resolve the conflict and everyone knows the answer is the two-state solution, based roughly on the Clinton parameters of December 2000. But this solution is not really desired by both sides,” Eiland said. “The game that has been played by both the Israelis and the Palestinians for at least the past 10 years is how to convince the international community, and particularly the United States, that the other side is guilty or responsible for the lack of progress.

“The maximum that a government of Israel – any government – can offer the Palestinians and survive politically is much, much less than the minimum that any possible Palestinian leadership can accept and survive politically,” he said.

He feels that each side has two good reasons for being reluctant to forge ahead with a two-state solution. For Israel, the security risks and lack of trust are too great after the pullout from Gaza – a stark admission given that Eiland helped the Sharon government plan and implement the 2005 Disengagement.

In addition, the emotional and economic costs of having to remove and relocate around 120,000 Israeli settlers in Judea/Samaria – some 15 times more than were evacuated from Gaza five years ago – is above the capacity of the government to execute. It would cost an estimated $30 billion and tear the nation apart, said Eiland.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians’ first incentive is to end the occupation, second to destroy Israel, and maybe a distant third is a state of their own, Eiland assessed.

“The Palestinian will to see the state of Israel disappear is much stronger than their will to have an independent state. They never wanted to have a state. It has never been their real dream,” Eiland surmised.

“The Palestinians are driven by the need for revenge, the need for ‘justice,’ the need for the recognition of their victimhood, and above all, the recognition of the ‘right’ of return… It is very hard for them to give up such  things, because they know very well that this settlement is also about the end of the conflict, and this is completely inconsistent with the way they tell their narrative.”

“The second reason the Palestinians are not so enthusiastic about their own state is because they know very well that it’s not going to be viable,” continued Eiland. “They know this small, fragile state will not really manage to achieve economic independence… It will not be a real nation they can be proud of.”

Seven bitter pills
Given such a bleak picture, Eiland outlined seven possible alternatives to the moribund two-state solution:

1) Conflict Management – As with past US and Israeli governments, the peace process is often less about conflict resolution than about keeping the conflict on a low flame. The Obama administration insists this approach is no longer tenable, but with the sort of economic cooperation and investment being offered by the Netanyahu government, even PA officials concede that life for Palestinians in the West Bank at least has become quite bearable.

2) An Imposed Solution – Recent reports suggest the Obama administration has already prepared a back-up plan if proximity talks flounder, in the form of an international summit after the fall US elections at which Washington will table its own Mideast peace proposal. The PA would likely welcome such a scenario, thinking this president is closer to their positions than to Israel’s on most of the core issues – borders, Jerusalem and refugees. They are also hoping the European Union will intervene and recognize a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, based on the recent precedent of Kosovo. The White House, however, has assured everyone that no real peace can be imposed from abroad, so it remains unclear whether the reports of Obama’s plan B are merely being ‘planted’ to frighten the parties into making compromises.

3) Partial Solution Now – This option was advanced last year by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, who proposed creating an interim Palestinian state within provisional borders and solving whatever else can be solved now, while keeping the most sensitive issues to the end, especially Jerusalem and refugees. The rationale is that this may create a better atmosphere between the two sides, leading to greater flexibility for compromise in future. Israel and the US have officially rejected the idea for now, while PA officials have sent mixed signals due to European interest.

4) Unilateralism – Until four years ago, this was the official policy of the government of Israel, and only after the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 was it abandoned. Until then, prime minister Olmert was pushing a ‘Realignment’ plan for a major West Bank withdrawal to the security barrier. But given the intolerable rocket threats following the unilateral pullbacks from south Lebanon and Gaza, it is unlikely many Israelis will return to this option anytime soon.

Meantime, the Palestinians also have a unilateral option of declaring their own state. They have threatened such a move on several occasions, and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is presently carrying out a plan to build the institutions of a de facto state by August 2011.

Obama administration officials have also voiced a firm determination to birth a Palestinian state during the president’s first term, and could seek to present it as a fait accompli.

5) The Jordan Option – This alternative would involve a return to a situation similar to before 1967, when Jordan was in the West Bank and Egypt was in Gaza, or some form of Palestinian confederation with Jordan. The West Bank would handle most of its own affairs, but Amman would control security and foreign policy. This notion would have been totally rejected five years ago, but the rise of Hamas in Gaza has changed things.

“Ordinary people in Ramallah would prefer being under Jordan than under Hamas,” calculated Eiland. “One of the reasons why the Palestinian leadership finds it difficult to reach agreement with Israel is because it is afraid to make decisions which will be condemned by the Arab world. Now if such a solution is achieved by a coalition of Palestinians and Jordanians, then they can at least share some of the responsibility in questions like Jerusalem. So it is much easier politically.” He also believes 90% of the Israeli public would prefer this option over the ordinary two-state solution, because they trust the Jordanians. But Amman wants a Palestinian state in place before discussing any union.

6) Grand Land Swaps – This option entails radically redrawing the map of the Middle East. The concept of land swaps has already been accepted “in principle” by both sides, but under this scenario Egypt and other neighboring Arab states might be called upon to exchange land in three-way deals, such as Cairo ceding the northeast corner of the Sinai to broaden Gaza and taking a strip of Israeli land in the Negev in trade. The Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman has advocated its own version by suggesting that large Israeli Arab towns like Umm el-Fahm be swapped for the larger Jewish settlement blocks. Such proposals were once ridiculed but are now gaining some traction in Israel.

7) One-state solution – This would encompass creating one bi-national state for Arabs and Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, under the slogan “one land for two peoples and three religions.” It would be based on the democratic tenet of one-man, one-vote, and already has strong backing among the European elite. Most Israelis instantly reject such a solution as woefully unworkable, since the two historically hostile populations would always be competing to establish majority rule. The PA, on the other hand, has threatened to appeal to the international community for a one-state solution should the peace process remain deadlocked. The PA’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat even drafted a policy paper last December recommending this as a fallback position.

Truth be told, the Palestinian insistence on both a two-state solution and the right of return of Palestinian refugees has always been aimed at a one-state solution anyway – one which anticipates the demise of the Jewish state.


This article appeared in the June Christian edition of The Jerusalem Post.
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