As peace talks sputter, Israelis and Palestinians eye Plan B

Forming a single binational state is among the alternatives being raised to the two-state solution.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Divide: Palestinian women in Bethlehem waited to cross a checkpoint into Jerusalem last Friday, to pray during Ramadan.
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Over the past two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, deadlines for peace agreements have come and gone with precious few treaties.

Now, amid low expectations for an agreement before the expiration of the Bush administration's target for an accord by the end of 2008, voices are growing on both sides advocating abandoning talks on Palestinian statehood if they miss the mark yet again.

"We certainly need to think outside the box," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and longtime supporter of peace talks. "The business-as-usual approach hasn't worked."

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Advocating a single binational state of Jews and Arabs is the alternative strategy most often mentioned as gaining cachet among Palestinians, though even backers of that goal concede that it is more of an ideal than a realistic goal. Other alternatives that some Palestinians are mulling include dismantling the Palestinian government, an international trusteeship, and returning to popular uprising to achieve an independent state.

Adds Ms. Ashrawi, "There are many ideas, but there is no consensus. The consensus is that we are reaching the end of our rope. The two-state solution is receding, and we are in crisis."

Nearly a year ago at a summit in Annapolis, Md., President Bush called for a push to reach a deal by the end of his term. If that deadline passes, it is unclear if the fledgling successor to the Bush administration will dive back into talks when chances for success seem slim. Palestinian and Israeli leaders are both weak right now, making it difficult for either side to push for an agreement.

Both sides have acknowledged recently that negotiators aren't close to a peace agreement, despite 10 months of talks. Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon said Sunday that even a declaration of principles on a peace treaty isn't in sight. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, that "the gap between the sides is very large."

Calls for a new strategy are more urgent on the Palestinian side, where a collapse of the talks would be a blow to the standing of Mr. Abbas, a standard bearer for choosing negotiations over force, as he vies for legitimacy against the Islamic militants from Hamas who control the Gaza Strip.

There is also fear that a breakdown in the negotiations will leave a vacuum for a new Palestinian uprising in the same way that the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in July 2000 gave way within two months to several years of daily violence.

Palestinians warn of a tipping point in the not so distant future when establishing a sustainable, sovereign Palestinian state will be rendered impossible, as Jewish settlements expand and Israel's security barrier continues to cut a cookie-cutter-like path through the West Bank.

"There is an urgent need for Palestinians to get together and say, 'What is going on with our national project?' " says Bashir Bashir, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who helped draft a 52-page assessment of strategic options beyond the negotiations for a forum of 27 influential leaders and intellectuals calling themselves the Palestine Strategy Study Group, formed this year.

Mr. Bashir concedes that, though he supports the creation of a single state of Arabs and Jews, it is unclear how such an entity can be created, given the opposition of Israeli Jews and the reluctance of many Palestinian leaders. A binational state was the prevailing choice of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization until 1988. While a growing number of Palestinian intellectuals embrace the idea of a binational state, it remains a minority position.

"Talk about one state is a nice message, but its impossible. We will kill them, and they will kill us," says Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv and an architect of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles reached in Oslo.

Many Israelis fear that as Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel reach demographic parity with Jews, demands for one state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea will grow more compelling. US and Israeli officials have warned that the window of opportunity for the two-state solution might be closing.

There is also talk among Palestinians of a unilateral declaration of statehood in the spirit of Kosovo's secession from Serbia this year. (On the eve of a deadline for an agreement in 1999, Palestinian leaders threatened a similar move but ultimately didn't follow through.)

Some right-wing critics have called for Egypt and Jordan to reassert authority in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, respectively, which they controlled until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Israeli critics of the current negotiations question the value of holding peace talks with a government whose legitimacy is challenged by many Palestinians.

Instead of widening the rift between Abbas and Hamas by pushing peace talks that divides the Palestinians into "moderate" peace partners and "extremist" enemies, Israel should encourage Palestinian reconciliation, says Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli general and currently a fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

"As long as there is no agreement between Hamas and Fatah, at least on the rules of the game of running the Palestinian Authority, there is no chance of reach an agreement or implementing an agreement," he says. "Israel needs a new paradigm."

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