A sense of the absurd hovers over the current negotiations to form a new governing coalition in Israel. After previously serving in governments together, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas are belatedly discovering that they might just be incompatible. Having secured a clear mandate for a government composed of right, ultra-right and religious-right partners, Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be distinctly unenthusiastic about such a prospect. While Tzipi Livni's principal stance seems principled rather than absurd, it too contains an element of the unreal.
Livni is demanding that Netanyahu affirm the "two states for two peoples" approach as a prerequisite for Kadima joining the coalition. Netanyahu's response has been to suggest that the Likud and Kadima negotiating teams convene around a blank sheet of paper and draw up the coalition guidelines together. Translation: What's important is that we can agree to a formula on paper; what happens in the real world after that is something we can argue about for the next four years. After all, paper can absorb anything. Indeed, a special place really should be preserved in Israel's national pantheon for the wordsmiths of coalition guidelines throughout the ages.
So even if Netanyahu were to find a formula regarding two states that would satisfy Livni, would it really matter? Would two states really come into existence? This is not to suggest that Livni is insincere in her support for this position. Far from it. She pursues the issue with the true zeal of a convert, which is exactly what she is when it comes to the question of Palestinian statehood. After all, a mere declaration of intent to achieve two states would not satisfy the driving force behind Livni's conversion in the first place. Urgency was the key then: She adopted the two-state formula out of a sense of urgency, perceiving that, as the occupation struck ever deeper roots, time was working against Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state. And if immediacy is the litmus test, then a linguistic formula without any practical teeth is of little use.
I would hold that the demographic argument both misses the point (the other ramifications of the occupation for Israel and its democracy are far more dramatic) and can be co-opted by Avigdor Lieberman and his ilk (as it has been already), if one does not at the same time stake out a more inclusive vision of Israeliness, especially with regard to Israel's Arab-Palestinian minority. But we are discussing Livni's logic here, not mine.
For the Kadima head's demand to receive greater weight and seriousness, it needs to include a more tangible and concrete yardstick. Here, Livni is in something of a bind. She could call for a settlement freeze, but that would ring rather hollow, given the record of expansion during the term of the outgoing government in which she was a senior partner. The same "gotcha" problem would exist if she were to make an issue of outpost removal. Livni could insist that the new government continue negotiations with PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas, but those talks look more like a recipe for avoiding decisions than reaching them.
No, if Livni wants her vision of two states to be both credible and meaningful, she needs to come up with a game-changer. Agreeing that Israel will define its permanent borders with the Palestinians by the end of the new government's term of office would meet that test. One path to achieving that goal could be the traditional one, via negotiations with an empowered and domestically legitimized Palestinian leadership, but this need not be the only option.
Israel's interlocutor might be the United States or the Quartet, either of which could conduct back-to-back talks with relevant Palestinian and Arab decision-makers. Alternately, Israel might negotiate indirectly, in the context of the Arab peace plan, with Arab states, which would in turn consult with the relevant Palestinians, thereby guaranteeing the necessary Palestinian buy-in and representation. Once a border is defined, this would of course have to be followed in short order by a withdrawal of the Israeli occupation to that line.
It is true that such a position was not part of the Kadima electoral platform; then again, neither was the veritable love-in between Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu seen in the days following the ballot.
At first glance, such an agenda would appear to be anathema to Netanyahu. It could, though, be linked to additional innovations, such as the establishment of an interim international trusteeship over the de-occupied area, thereby allowing him to avoid being directly responsible for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Perhaps this is what Netanyahu meant when he suggested to Livni that there might be another formula for defining the political approach to the Palestinian issue.
Certainly, the debate sparked by such a proposal would be a clarifying moment, and would move us beyond the yawn-inducing re-incantation of the "two-state" mantra. If it is accepted, then glory be. If not, then Livni has a real agenda with which to lead the opposition, and the public will finally be presented with real choices.
Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, and lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.