Alastair MacDonald
Reuters (Analysis)
February 24, 2010 - 1:00am

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has lost its global audience as both sides haggle over talks about talks on issues the world thought were long settled. Don't let it fool you. Here on the ground in this Belgium-size bit of Mediterranean coast a new war is raging, so far of words, over the "two-state solution" so consensually accepted in the West since the 1990s.

Many of the "alternatives" getting an airing are impractical or one-sided. But such thought-experiments have focused minds, here and abroad, on the longevity of a status quo where Israel controls a whole territory where Arabs may soon outnumber Jews.

Under a prime minister who signed up, guardedly, only last year to the partition goal enshrined in the 1993 Oslo accords, Israelis have been publicising what they prefer to a Palestinian state -- from a Greater Israel, to joint Jewish-Arab nationhood, to hiving off Palestinians and their land to the Arab states. Their critics warn of "rivers of blood" in an "apartheid Israel" made international pariah if the two-state option dies.

"There is a civil war going on for Israel's soul," columnist Bradley Burston wrote in the liberal newspaper Haaretz. Palestinians, too, are sounding more apocalyptic. President Mahmoud Abbas brandished the "one-state solution" -- an Arab majority demanding equal rights -- if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not halt Jewish colonisation of the West Bank and let Palestinians have a state. He also warned this week that his people may turn to more violence if they are thwarted.
As world attention wanes, perhaps with the lack of televised bloodshed and the glacial pace of U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts to get the sides back to even "proximity talks", Israelis and Palestinians are watching anxiously to see whether the 20-year-old "peace process" will now live, or die.


Polls generally show majorities on both sides in favour of a two-state solution of some kind. But leaders in either camp fear a backlash if they make the concessions the other side wants. And so other ideas are bubbling up. Israel's former national security adviser Giora Eiland has published a paper saying Oslo is effectively at a dead end due to irreconcilable differences. He proposes instead redrawing regional borders to turn most Palestinians into citizens of neighbouring Jordan or Egypt.
"The necessary conditions for reaching a permanent Israeli-Palestinian settlement in the foreseeable future do not exist," wrote Eiland, who once negotiated for such a solution. But critics note Jordan and Egypt show little interest.

For Yasser Abed Rabbo, a veteran Palestinian negotiator, the current Israeli fashion for alternatives to the old partition plan is driven by a preference for inertia and creeping annexation: "I don't hear any alternative other than to keep the status quo and prevent the establishment of anything that deserves the name of a viable Palestinian state," he said.

Talk among some Palestinians of preferring to become Israeli citizens or of unilaterally declaring statehood without an end to occupation was, Abed Rabbo told Reuters, little more than the product of frustration, "a warning signal to the Israelis". Echoing that, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a former premier who took his Labour party into Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, this month joined those who are warning Israelis that failure to share the biblical "land of Israel" with a Palestinian state could kill off Zionist dreams of a Jewish democracy.

Soon, he said, at birth rates among Arabs inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, retaining a single state between the Jordan river and the sea would mean it was a state that was "either non-Jewish or non-democratic ... an apartheid state". Some still speak up for a "bi-national state", where the 12 million Arabs and Jews could live harmoniously, or in a looser, Bosnia-style confederation -- ideas many dismiss as utopian. Others want Jews, or the Palestinians, to have all the land. In the centre, however, debate is opening up in Israel, not so much on whether to give up territory, but how -- either after tortuous negotiation or, as with Gaza in 2005, unilaterally.


Dan Shueftan of Haifa University argues Israel should forget talks and just quit the West Bank, at least behind the barrier that keeps most Arabs out of Israel and the Jewish settlements. Dismissing objections that quitting Gaza left Israelis under fire from Hamas Islamist hardliners, Shueftan said it was better for Israel's democratic society than occupation. Israelis could flourish, as they have for decades, without a peace deal: "Don't give the Arabs the veto over what is essential for Israel and that is unilateral disengagement," Shueftan said.

To critics, like Yossi Beilin, veteran negotiator and former Israeli minister, unilateralists ignore benefits, like trade and peace with Arab states, that a negotiated settlement may offer.
But Beilin agrees with them that if Israel is not to be a "pariah state" its choice does boil down to this: "You have to have a border. And there are only two ways to do that: either you come to an agreement, or you make one without an agreement." It is a choice, Beilin said, Netanyahu or his successor must make soon, if Western allies apply "unbearable" pressure -- once they determine that Jews have become a minority ruling group.

While he rules in coalition with settlers like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu seems to those on the left an unlikely contender as peacemaker. One of the prime minister's closest aides last week called it a "tooth fairy" illusion to imagine the world would embrace Israel if it just gave up land.
But that may change: "Even (right-wingers) cannot accept the situation where there would be a Jewish minority," Beilin said. Yet time for agreement, many officials and diplomats concur, may be running out as frustration breeds radicalism all round.

As his envoy George Mitchell struggles to bridge the gaps, Obama is facing new calls at home to push Israel -- in its own interests, some self-declared friends of the Jewish state say.
"If there are not two states there will be one state between the river and the sea and very soon there will be more Palestinian Arabs in it than Jews," wrote columnist Roger Cohen in the New York Times. "What then will become of the Zionist dream? "It's time for Obama to ask such tough questions in public."


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