This is a period of fundamental geo-strategic change in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The diplomatic impasse which has prevailed since the collapse of the Oslo process is giving way to a flurry of activity underwritten by shifting regional and global currents. The present political moves are pointing in two, diametrically opposed, directions: the institutionalization of Israeli-Palestinian separation without agreement, or the resolution of the conflict through negotiations. In either event, the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River will be effectively divided.
If no progress on a permanent status settlement leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel is recorded in the near future, the outcome, by default, will be the long-term consolidation of Israeli overrule through the physical detachment of Palestinians from each other and from Israel. The latter eventuality is a sure prescription for ongoing conflict; the former holds the promise of a lasting peace. The significance attached to how present diplomatic efforts are channeled cannot, therefore, be exaggerated.
The separation scenario has been unfolding on the ground for some time. It began with the settlement enterprise, and has been reinforced more recently by hundreds of checkpoints which have impeded the mobility of people and goods. It continued with the construction of the wall in the West Bank. And it was expedited after the Hamas victory in the January 2006 elections, which prompted the geographic isolation of the Gaza Strip. This physical severance was cemented by the June 2007 Hamas takeover.
Stepped-up activity is now apparent throughout the Palestinian territories. The last segments of the separation wall are being completed. Checkpoints have been transformed into full-fledged border crossings. Separate highways have been paved for Israelis only. Palestinian passageways are being blocked and access to the Jordan Valley systematically circumscribed. The result is the containment of millions of Palestinians behind wire fences in tiny, non-contiguous enclaves with little ability to communicate with each other or with the outside world.
THE SOLIDIFICATION of de-facto separation is being carried out by the security forces, with the tacit, if not the active, support of key policymakers. Today, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Haim Ramon are directly implicated in its details. Propelled by widespread public inertia, it is highly likely that these measures will artificially seal off Israelis from Palestinians by the end of this year without attenuating the danger of ongoing violence.
The alternative, diplomatic scenario focuses directly on the possibility of achieving a negotiated agreement. It is now being actively explored by international intermediaries (most notably Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair) and regional actors (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League). Mahmoud Abbas and Olmert began this week to discuss the principles that will guide such a permanent settlement. And plans for convening a conference in the fall to jump-start full-scale final status talks are proceeding apace.
These moves, pursued with various degrees of enthusiasm and for quite different motives by the respective parties, are nevertheless informed by a common understanding that the present opportunity constitutes perhaps the last possibility for the realization of the two-state option. The likelihood of success relies to a large extent on the careful design and execution of the proposed conference.
In this connection, four key parameters must be carefully defined. The first relates to the framework for negotiations, which it is now widely agreed should be based on the Arab League Initiative. This proposal links progress on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to regional stabilization, while making Israel and its immediate neighbors into stakeholders with a vested interest in their outcome.
The second parameter concerns the format of the conference. The debate over its regional versus international composition is not merely academic; it has broad implications for its ultimate effectiveness. An international conference gives substantial political weight to the proceedings; it has the added advantage of ensuring the active involvement of international actors in its results.
The third parameter addresses the substantive formula. The purpose of the conference should be to set in motion final status negotiations on all outstanding issues, beginning with borders and security arrangements and including settlements, Jerusalem and refugees. This agenda may be substantially enriched by the introduction of broad human security concerns, with a view to laying the groundwork for reconciliation in the long run. To ensure closure on these issues, the conference architects would be well advised to establish a strict timetable and to create oversight instruments to monitor progress.
The final parameter deals with the negotiating process. The conference itself, and the talks it supports, must be transparent, inclusive and consultative. If crafted properly, negotiations should incorporate representatives of Israeli and Palestinian civil society - and the unique insights they possess - into the formal process. Such a move can mitigate domestic opposition, ease acceptance of painful moves and foster a climate of common ownership of the outcomes.
The reality of Israeli-Palestinian futures is now being molded. Whether this yields separation and enmity or the fulfillment of the vision of two independent states living side by side in peace, security and mutual dignity depends on the will, capacity, skill, ingenuity and commitment displayed by leaders and their constituencies in the next few weeks. What is already evident beyond any doubt is that the geographic status quo that has prevailed since 1967 is over. Territorial division will take place, either via the completion of the separation trend or through its prudent and lasting reversal by agreement.