JERUSALEM – Nine months of U.S.-driven diplomacy have left Israelis and Palestinians less hopeful than ever about a comprehensive peace agreement to end their century of conflict. Although a formula may yet be found to somehow prolong the talks past an end-of-April deadline, they are on the brink of collapse and the search is already on for new ideas.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts have exposed vast differences: On sharing Jerusalem, resolving the situation of millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, and even borders, the sides seem nowhere close to agreement. And Thursday, Israel said it halted the talks in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision to form a unity government with the Islamic militant Hamas movement, which Israel and the West consider a terrorist group.
"Unfortunately, under the current conditions, it is apparently not possible to reach 'end of conflict' — or, in more poetic language, a peace agreement," said dovish Cabinet member Amram Mitzna, a former general in charge of the West Bank.
Mohammed Madani, a leading member of Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, said the Palestinian leader told visiting Israeli politicians that the Palestinians "cannot continue with talks in vain."
He said the Palestinians will press with their applications for membership as a state with various United Nations and other world bodies, a strategy aimed at entrenching the view that all the area Israel captured in the 1967 war is a foreign country and not — as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have it — "disputed territory."
The effort by Palestinians and their supporters to engineer an economic boycott of Israel also likely will grow.
And so will concerns that a third Palestinian uprising will erupt. This week, Fatah's military wing issued a call for "armed resistance until the liberation of all Palestine" — language not heard from that quarter for years.
Some Israelis, like powerful Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, call for a punitive annexation of parts of the West Bank, which seems a hollow threat but inflames tempers further.
Israel's more moderate political parties can be expected to try to topple Netanyahu, either forcing new elections or engineering an alternative majority in the Knesset which would be more forthcoming with the Palestinians. It's not inconceivable, given that they control almost half of the body, Israel's right wing is divided and the angst in the country is strong.
Beneath the surface there is a powerful force at work: A growing current in Israel says that one way or another, the country must separate itself from the Palestinians with a real border. If not, the occupied territories and Israel will eventually come to be seen as one entity, with 12 million people, half of whom are Arabs — hardly the Zionist vision of a Jewish state.
Meanwhile, the situation is messy: Some of the Arabs under Israel's control, in pre-1967 Israel, have citizenship, while those in the West Bank — whose land and entry points and water resources are controlled by Israel — do not. Even though the West Bank is formally not in Israel, the country builds settlements there and their residents vote in Israeli elections. The settlers can freely enter and leave the West Bank, while Palestinians cannot. The situation seems unsustainable, and is starting to draw comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa even in Israel itself.
Here are some directions the discourse may take:
PARTIAL SETTLEMENT — WITH OLD CITY THROWN IN?
Mitzna and a host of others, including former minister Yossi Beilin, architect of the 1990s accords establishing the Palestinian Authority, call for an interim arrangement in which the Palestinians would get statehood on most but not all the land they seek. They would get nothing on the refugees, but would not have to renounce any further claims either.
The Palestinians fear that freed of what Israelis call the "demographic danger," Israel's motivation to ever cede anything further will vanish.
"The state with provisional borders is a trick that we ... will never accept," Fatah official Tawfik Tirawi said. "From our experience with Israel, the provisional turns into final."
Israel would have to present serious enticements to overcome such objections.
"We need to propose such a generous offer that the world will say to the Palestinians, 'You cannot reject this,'" veteran commentator Ehud Yaari said.
Such an enticement might be a new arrangement in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, a key issue which to date has been tethered to the final settlement idea. It might agree to joint custody of the area with its Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites, possibly with the inclusion other Muslim countries and outside powers — a sort of Vatican of the Holy Land. That would be a big symbolic prize — even if it still leaves open the question of the rest of east Jerusalem, adjacent to the ancient area, which the Palestinians also seek as a capital.
"It might be a very interesting way to deal with the matter," Beilin said. "The question is whether there is a government in Israel that is ready to think this way."
UNILATERAL PULLOUT — WITH MILITARY OCCUPATION?
There are plenty of Israelis who cannot envision a peace deal of any kind yet still fear the demographic issue enough to want a pullout.
Ariel Sharon, prime minister from 2001-2006, was a longtime hawk but eventually concluded the occupation was bad for Israel. He shocked everyone by ordering all Israeli soldiers out of the Gaza Strip and evicting the almost 10,000 Jewish settlers living there. Israel thus unburdened itself of ruling Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians at a meager territorial cost.
Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke in early 2006. His successor Ehud Olmert won elections a few months later on the promise of repeating the move in the West Bank, which has some 2.5 million Palestinians.
But the West Bank — its borders formed by the armistice lines of the 1948-49 war that created Israel — is more valuable than Gaza. Its highland juts into Israel enough to leave Israel a few miles (kilometers) wide at its narrowest point, surrounds Jerusalem on three sides and is packed with biblical sites. Moreover, the Gaza pullout didn't bring peace on that border. In 2007, the Islamic militants of Hamas seized control there, and since then Israel has faced periodic rocket barrages and fought two mini-wars with Hamas.
But the unilateral pullout idea lives on: Set a border that would likely incorporate some West Bank land into Israel to include some settlements, and then dismantle the rest, without waiting for Palestinian agreement or recompense.
"Israel has to take its fate into its own hands (and) declare what our borders are," said Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to Washington, this week. It's needed, he said, "to preserve our identity as a democratic and Jewish state."
Labor Party lawmaker Omer Bar Lev said Israel should "evacuate settlements from beyond those borders. ... As far as I am concerned let them establish a state there."
But what about the rocket threat? Israel may decide to keep the military in place even on the "Palestinian" side of the border, figuring a military occupation is quickly reversible should the risk equation change.
The settler lobby would reject a withdrawal and kick up a fuss that would bring turmoil for a time. As for the Palestinians, they sharply oppose a unilateral Israeli drawing of the border — but they would be happy to see settlers go, and would need to give nothing in return.
If there is no separation, the logical long-term default seems to be a single state of Israelis and Palestinians, in which neither has superior rights. Most Israelis dismiss this as not plausible — but history may not ask Israel its view.
How long can Israelis continue to insist that beyond the 1967 lines — which they hardly themselves respect, considering the settlement construction — there must be a different regime than in Israel proper, with Palestinians denied full democratic rights, unlike their brethren within the country's official borders.
Even many Israelis now see a single democratic state as inevitable. Some are leftists who always disliked the nationalism inherent in establishing a Jewish state; others cannot bring themselves to abandon the land, often for religious reasons; and then there are others who have simply despaired of a way out.
Abbas alluded to this in a recent meeting with Israeli lawmakers, threatening to "hand over the keys" of the Palestinians' autonomy government, saddle Israel with direct control of millions of Palestinians, and let it fend for itself.
"The only realistic solutions are the two states or one state," Tirawi said. "If Israel keeps building in our land, the Palestinian Authority would collapse and then we are going to end up with one state for two peoples. And I think this has become the more realistic."
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
Dan Perry has covered the Mideast since the 1990s and currently leads the Associated Press' text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan .