When they met at the White House Monday, Nov. 24, president George W. Bush and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert went through the motions of affirming that the process leading to an Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side in peace would surely continue after Barack Obama moved into the White House. Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas issued his statement endorsing a two-state solution of the long conflict.
However, all three knew perfectly well they were flogging a dead horse.
Progress is nil and the gaps between the Israeli and Palestinian positions yawn a lot more widely than admitted publicly by any of the parties and are nowhere near the point presented by Bush officials to Obama's transition teams.
Both Israelis and Palestinians sincerely seek to solve the dispute, which periodically flares into violence. But they are not necessarily of one mind about the need for two independent sates. On this subject the gap is widening.
Furthermore, in going for a two-state accommodation of the conflict, the leaders of both sides take on inordinate political risks which far outweigh the benefits. Neither is prepared for this gamble.
In closed-door talks, the Americans, Israelis, Palestinians and the Arabs involved in the process admit that any hope of it reaching a successful culmination any time soon is illusory. A flop is much more likely.
Status quo or a Jordanian formula?
They are not saying this out loud, because they realize that an admission of failure at this stage would force them to confront two unpromising options:
1. Acceptance of the unfeasibility of two states in the foreseeable future. Both sides would then have to reconcile themselves to the status quo and hope for the best in the future.
2. A quest for another way.
Two ideas have been floated:
One: To bring Jordan in as a party for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
It is obvious to Jordan, like everyone else, that forcing Israel to withdraw from the West Bank would only invite the fundamentalist Hamas to move in, the way they did after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Given the large Palestinian component in Jordan's population and the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Hamas-ruled West Bank would seriously shake the Jordanian throne in Amman.
Many West Bank Palestinians, the moderate Muslims and non-religious groups, would object strongly to falling under Islamic fundamentalist domination.
If an independent Palestine was unobtainable, they would opt for the West Bank being attached Jordan. Israel and most Palestinians would probably accept an autonomous entity federated or otherwise associated with kingdom to the east – as long as it was demilitarized and waived control of its security.
For now, neither side is willing to admit this.
Land swaps between Sinai, the Negev and West Bank
Two: An exchange of territory that would extend to Egyptian Sinai.
This radical plan has some fans on the pro-accommodation side of the Israeli political spectrum as an ad hoc measure pending a solution.
It is predicated on an eventual reconciliation between the Gaza's Hamas fundamentalists and Abbas' Fatah of the West Bank – although this has defied all Arab efforts so far.
The pressure of 1.5 million Palestinians squeezed into the narrow Gaza enclave would be eased by Egypt handing over 600 square kilometers of adjoining Sinai land, for which Israel would grant Egypt an equal patch of Negev desert and retain 600 square kilometers on the West Bank to secure its borders and the Jewish communities living there.
The bulk of West Bank territory would be handed over to the Palestinians for a viable state..
It would partially address the territorial issue, but does not touch on all the other heavy problems outstanding like Jerusalem, refugees, sovereignty, borders, security and the link between the two halves of the Palestinian state in the event of the two factions patching up their feud.
This wispy idea has drifted between the pages of a plethora of “peace plans” mooted over the decades without settling anywhere. Like them, it will float back on the shelf.
With the US and Israeli governments in the middle of changeover – Israel faces a general election on Feb. 10, 2009 less than a month after the new US president is sworn in – more pressing business awaits both.