On the Edge of the Abyss

Must we now choose between unilateral disengagement from the West Bank and a countdown to the end of either a Jewish Israel or a democratic one?

The warning sirens have given way to sighs of relief in Jerusalem. An internal Foreign Ministry report posits that the Obama administration is not expected to devote too much attention to the peace process in the coming year.

The Palestinians don't harbor high hopes for the talks either. An internal memo written by their negotiations department offers alternatives to the two-state solution, including nullification of the Oslo Accords and the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. In an essay that appeared in Foreign Affairs, Israeli political commentator Ehud Yaari was quick to nip in the bud a final-status agreement with the Palestinian "Oslo camp." He recommends relinquishing a large chunk of the territories in exchange for an armistice and a conflict-management strategy vis-a-vis Hamas, Iran's long arm.

What is quite disconcerting is that these sort of ideas, along with the infatuation with the delusional notion of a binational state, are falling on very attentive ears. The peace camp has yet to recover from the "there's no partner" narrative that Ehud Barak propagated after the failure of the Camp David Summit in July 2000. A distorted version of events describing the contacts between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas provided an additional boost to the cliche of the Palestinians not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Every March, the Arab League reconvenes and reaffirms its support for the Arab Peace initiative of 2002. Every year Israel once again ignores the resolution and misses an opportunity to end the conflict and achieve normalized relations with all Arab states and the wider Muslim world.

The trust index between the Israelis and the Palestinians has returned to the nadir that characterized the days of Benjamin Netanyahu's first term of office. The wide gulf that separates the Israeli and Palestinian starting positions on the core issues of the conflict remains. It is difficult to believe that in four months of indirect negotiations, the Obama administration will succeed in bridging the gaps over issues like borders, Jerusalem and the refugees. This spring, the American mediator will be tasked with lifting the fog from that abyss as much as it can.

A year after Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech, the Israeli public deserves to know whether the Netanyahu-Barak-Lieberman government can really be counted as a partner for an agreement based on the concept of two states for two peoples, or whether that's just a slogan cooked up by a public relations office. On the other hand, the public must once and for all know for certain whether the Palestinians are ready to reach a reasonable accommodation over territorial swaps that will enable Israel to annex the large settlement blocs where 80 percent of West Bank settlers live. The public deserves to know whether the Palestinians recognize the ties that bind the Jewish people to the holy sites of Jerusalem and whether they will make do with a solution for the refugees that does not include an Israeli recognition of the right of return.

According to a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, the Obama administration has promised Abbas that if either side fails to live up to expectations, the United States will not conceal its disappointment, nor will it hesitate to take steps to remove the obstacle. In addition, the PA was promised that the United States would not be satisfied with playing the role of messenger. According to what the official read to me, the Obama administration will present its own proposals in an effort to bridge the gaps.

U.S. President Barack Obama will not have to sweat too much. All he needs to do is present the December 2000 Clinton peace plan to both sides and demand that they declare their positions on the principles mentioned in the document. Those include the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state on 94 percent to 96 percent of the West Bank, along with an additional territorial swap involving 1 percent to 3 percent of land inside the Green Line; the imposition of Palestinian sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem and Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish neighborhoods; the recognition that the right of return will not be fully realized in Israel, though it will be explicitly mentioned that the Palestinians do have the right to return to a national home; and the deployment of an international force along the border with Jordan.

Perhaps the two-state solution is baseless. It is possible that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those problems that are insoluble. Perhaps we have reached that awful crossroads where we must choose between a new version of the unilateral disengagement from Gaza - meaning that the West Bank would be abandoned to Hamas and those who stand behind it - or a countdown to the end of either a Jewish Israel or a democratic one. Woe to anyone who must face such a choice.

We must not give up this opportunity - perhaps our last chance - to ascertain whether there exists a Palestinian partner for a two-state agreement. If there is one, then we must begin the search for an Israeli partner.