JERUSALEM – As the U.S. president prepares to reinsert himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his best hope may be to set aside grand hopes for a final agreement and make do with a partial deal.
An interim settlement would leave neither side with full satisfaction, and the Palestinians in particular strongly oppose it for fear that it will become permanent. But with gaps seemingly unbridgeable on the same key issues that have scuttled all previous peace efforts, a piecemeal approach may be just enough to yield a sovereign Palestinian state, albeit an imperfect one.
Barack Obama heads to the region Wednesday in a long-awaited trip whose agenda includes hopes of restarting negotiations. The White House has been careful to lower expectations, saying Obama will mainly listen and learn as he speaks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
But U.S. officials confirm the idea of an interim agreement, while not their preference, has been under consideration. One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said new Secretary of State John Kerry "is looking for options on a way forward" and that an interim arrangement has been among several ideas being explored.
"The challenge of diplomacy is to try and find areas where progress can be made, and not always try and seek a complete solution when one is not in the cards at present," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. who has served as an informal adviser to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu's new government, which was inaugurated this week, includes key moderate partners that want movement on the Palestinian front and can bring down the government if they choose.
The Palestinians will be a hard sell. They want a state in all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. From their perspective to suffice with that territory — leaving Israel with over three-quarters of what was British-ruled Palestine until 1948 — is compromise enough.
"If Israel was serious it would have offered a solution based on the two states, but Israel wants to annex Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank by such an offer," said Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Previous peace talks under more dovish governments all broke down despite offers that Israelis think should have come close. No serious negotiations have taken place in the past four years, since Netanyahu returned to power.
Netanyahu opposes a full pullout from the West Bank because it is a strategic highland, and to many Jews it's their biblical heartland to boot. Complicating things are 300,000-odd Jewish settlers preventing a clean pullout.
He also chafes at giving up any of east Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed, expanded, and populated with another 200,000 Jews, declaring it an indivisible part of its capital — an idea generallyl rejected by the world community and the Palestinians who also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
East Jerusalem also contains the combustible Old City, walled home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites; giving it up would be excruciating for either side.
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat speaks for many when he argues that Jerusalem can no longer be divided on practical grounds: the communities are too mixed and any effort to draw a border would yield a map so bizarre as to defy implementation. Sharing control seems even more far-fetched; free entry for Palestinians from the adjoining West Bank into a shared city would suggest potential free further passage to the rest of Israel — yet Israel is determined to keep most Palestinians out as a security threat.
Further clouding the picture, the Palestinians demand the "right of return" of millions of refugees and descendants, whose families lost properties in what is now Israel. Israel rejects this out of hand, saying a mass influx would spell the end of the country.
And in a final complication, Hamas militants have controlled the coastal Gaza Strip since overrunning Abbas' forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew troops and settlers from there unilaterally. The Islamic militant group rejects peace with Israel, and efforts to reconcile with Abbas' rival government in the West Bank have repeatedly failed.
The landscape seems hopeless. But time is also working against both sides in different ways.
For Israel, a failure to divide the Holy Land into two states seems to be national suicide since the fast-growing Arab population in the area could soon outnumber Jews. If Gaza is included in the equation parity at about 6 million each looms even today; Palestinians argue that Gaza remains occupied because Israel controls its sea access and airspace and blockades most of its land border. Most Israelis, including the hard-line Netanyahu, acknowledge the status quo endangers Israel as a democracy with a solid Jewish majority.
For Palestinians, their dream of a state grows ever more distant as Israel continues to settle the West Bank and east Jerusalem with Jews. Although they increasingly wave the "binational state" threat as a default outcome of inaction, with its implications of the future demographic destruction of Israel, Palestinian leaders do seem to genuinely prefer the two-state option still possible — if barely — now.
A partial deal could provide relief for both sides. By decisively extricating itself from large parts of the West Bank, Israel would greatly diminish the demographic threat and blunt international criticism. The Palestinians would gain independence over much of the land they seek without having to drop their claims over east Jerusalem and refugees. What to do with Gaza could be left aside, along with Jerusalem, for a future final agreement.
Netanyahu, who won re-election by a whisker in January, has said his new government will make a renewed push for peace, though he has given no indication of how.
His new chief negotiator, dovish Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, told a security conference last week that while a final agreement must remain the goal, "I do definitely think that we need to think about additional possibilities in case we won't be able to end (the conflict), because a situation with a lack of a solution is unacceptable."
While Netanyahu's government is filled with hard-liners who reject any significant concessions to the Palestinians, he also could expect support from some prominent voices. Netanyahu's largest partner, Finance Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party, has also demanded a serious peace push.
Silvan Shalom, a Cabinet minister in Netanyahu's Likud Party, voiced support for a provisional agreement. "Our goal is to reach an agreement (even) if it is in stages," he told Israel Radio Tuesday.
Israeli opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, a fierce opponent of Netanyahu, said she would "seriously reconsider" joining his government if a temporary deal is reached.
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli Cabinet minister who negotiated the interim peace accords with the Palestinians in the 1990s that created the autonomous Palestinian Authority, said another partial accord would make sense now. He noted that the "Road Map," a U.S.-led peace initiative from a decade ago, called for a Palestinian state with provisional borders in its second phase while the stickiest issues were worked out.
"The practical offer that America can bring to the table, and this is what I really hope Obama will bring tomorrow, is an attempt to help both of the sides to seriously check the realization of the second stage of the Road Map," he said.
Beilin said he has discussed this idea with Netanyahu and Abbas in recent months, and both were open to the idea.
"Mahmoud Abbas said he would be ready for something like this under two conditions. The first condition is that he will receive the vision of the final agreement ... and the second thing is that he receives the timetable until a final agreement. Obama can provide both those things in my opinion," Beilin said.
A Palestinian official who was present during the meeting confirmed the conversation had taken place but could not say whether Abbas was in agreement. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of their meeting to the press.
In the end, it may come down to just how much land the Palestinians are offered as enticement — but for now the skepticism is strong.
Majed Swailim, a Palestinian political scientist, said "no one can accept" an interim solution that falls short of their remaining demands. The final result, he warned, will a single state of Israelis and Palestinians who do not want to live together.
Dan Perry has covered the Mideast since the 1990s and currently leads AP's coverage in the region. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan
Josef Federman is the Associated Press News Editor for Israel and the Palestinian territories. Follow him at twitter.com/joseffederman.
Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg contributed to this report.