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Two ships of state are headed directly toward each other at an average rate of 75 deaths per month.

The first ship, which we will call I., has many captains and no rudder. It is slowly but inexorably sinking from the corrosive effects of corruption, callousness and exhaustion. The second ship, which we will call P., has two full crews, each in full mutiny against the other. It is sinking at a somewhat faster rate, unable to feed its passengers, unable to alter its fate.

For your matriculation, answer the following question, showing your work: What is the probability that both ships will sink before they next have a chance to collide?

Extra credit: Arab leaders have been speaking of creating an independent Palestine for more than a century. Four of the last five Israeli prime ministers have endorsed the concept and spoken of fostering it. The world community recognizes that there should be such a state. So does President George W. Bush. And a billion Muslims believe that there must be such a state.

Why is there no Palestine?

1. Because Israelis cannot decide what they want.

Polls have shown that a clear majority of Israelis wants to see an end to the occupation. But history - and the craters of Katyushas and Qassams - indicates that a clear majority of Israelis, and an absolute majority of their leaders, are unwilling to take the potentially catastrophic risks of ending the occupation unilaterally.

Suspicious of the Palestinians' ultimate intentions, and fearful of the social consequences of expelling West Bank settlers, the public shows little inclination to seek a diplomatic solution.

We no longer want to pay the price of occupation, but we have become convinced that the price of ending it will be far higher.

2. Because Palestinians cannot decide what they want.

For decades, the Palestinians had no need to decide what they wanted. Israel shunned their representatives, dismissed their aspirations, settled their lands, imprisoned and otherwise hunted down their leaders.

The occupation was more than simply the address for all complaints, the explanation for all disappointments, the diagnosis for all pain. It was also the excuse for indefinitely delaying debate over the character of a future independent Palestine.

To be able to move toward statehood, Palestinians must decide how they themselves stand on the bedrock issues of the conflict. Fundamentally, they must decide if they wish to make a final peace with Israel, or press for a Palestine to supplant it.

3. Because neither side is willing to abide by peace agreements.

Each side has banks of researchers assembling evidence that the other side consistently violates the explicit terms of signed peace accords. The evidence, on both sides, is conclusive.

4. Because we are, all of us, better at vengeance than we are at forgiveness.

For both sides, it is the first rule of politics: Peace is politically dangerous, if not lethal. War, or at least talk of war, is the safer default setting.

This is similar to, but not the same as:

5. Because we love our extremists too much.

Both sides exhibit a sentimental attachment and quiet fondness for those in their midst who take the exact actions and promulgate the exact policies that act to foil a two-state solution.

6. Because the policies of both sides play directly into the hands of extremists on the other.

Hamas is Hamas because of Israel. And no group in the Holy Land has done more to bolster the Israeli far right than Hamas.

7. Because the Muslim world wants its Palestinians to suffer.

The Muslim world grants the Palestinians fortunes in lip service, and little else of value. The Palestinians are much more valuable to Muslim leaders abroad as valiant symbols of victimhood, channeling anger toward Israel.

8. Because the West now sees them as terrorists.

Thanks in large part to its own exposure to suicide terror, the West has changed its definition of Palestinian resistance, from defense of the innocent, to targeting of the innocent.

9. Because Arafat lied to them.

While Yasser Arafat was signing agreements with Israel, he was letting his people know in hints and winks and exhortations that they would in the end have everything they wanted. Refugees would return to their homes in Israel proper. Jerusalem's Old City would return to Muslim sovereignty. The armed struggle would tip the balance.

There is also the lie inherent in the rule of corruption that Arafat fostered, sapping critical resources, undermining public confidence, and crippling efforts at responsive governance.

10. Because they cannot stop themselves.

There is no one to put an end to civil war. There is no spiritual authority, there is no governmental authority, there is no military authority.

11. Because some of the best people in Palestine are leaving.

And because some of the people who cannot leave, cannot think about anything else.

12. Because each side takes it for granted that it is clearly, morally, objectively in the right, and that the other side is nothing but wrong.

A fool's paradise turns out to be better than no paradise at all.

13. And because the Holy Land is the world capital of wishful thinking.

Deep down, both sides secretly believe that they will get what they have wanted all along, whether it's Greater Israel or Greater Palestine, complete sovereignty over Jerusalem or the right of return.

After a century of struggle, the Palestinians deserve better. The Palestinians deserve a nation. But after a century of struggle, they now face their worst test since 1948.

Their ship of state needs a painful refitting, and a radical and perhaps terrifying change of course. As a people, the Palestinians are now facing their matriculation. If they can address their long list of problems head on, they can return to the path of independence. But skip the problems, or get the problems wrong, and Palestinian nationhood may be just one more dream ground into the dust in Gaza.