Over the past few weeks, top Israeli and Palestinian officials have repeatedly voiced the reassuring idea that the only way forward is peace through negotiation.
But Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak could conceivably forsake the other and go his own way. The recent violence has brought them both to the point of preparing for what diplomats delicately call "unilateral action."
Mr. Arafat can unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state, and Mr. Barak can unilaterally separate Israel from the Palestinians. "Declaration" and "separation" may sound like steps in an amicable divorce, but in this case the consequences could well be tragic.
As Arafat and Barak wrestle with choices ranging from peace to war, "unilateralism" is beginning to look like the worst-case scenario.
Things are bad enough as it is. As of yesterday, 140 people have been killed after four weeks of clashes, all but eight of them Palestinians.
"Any unilateralism of that dramatic a nature - a declaration of an independent Palestinian state and then a unilateral separation on the Israeli side - is the antithesis of negotiation and agreement," says one avowedly pessimistic US diplomat in the region, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "What follows from this is then an inevitable conflict" - one much worse than has occurred thus far.
This immovable-object-meets-unstoppable-force scenario is hard to imagine, but in recent weeks the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has had several troubling thresholds: Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are involved to an unprecedented degree; Palestinian police have fired on Israelis for the first time; and Israeli forces have employed weapons - such as helicopter and tanks - that they have not used against Palestinians in the past.
Should unilateralism take hold, the two sides will be forced to fight over land. As the Palestinian side tries to demarcate the borders around the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem that it finds acceptable, Israel will rush to do the same - and there is a lot of overlap.
For one thing, Israel administers and polices East Jerusalem, which it claims as part of its undivided capital. Its forces control security in more than half of the West Bank and in certain parts of the Gaza Strip where there are Israeli communities or settlements.
These settlements would be flashpoints of conflict. The Palestinians will undoubtedly attempt to evict Israelis who have taken up residence in their midst, and the Israelis would strive to protect that.
By "separation," Israelis mean a severance or curtailment of ties with Palestinians. The idea is to reduce friction, but the result could be the opposite.
Since seizing East Jerusalem, the Gaza strip, and the West Bank in 1967, Israel has made Palestinians dependent on the vastly larger Israeli economy.
Many Palestinians turn to Israel for jobs, and nearly all of them rely on supplies of electricity and water controlled by Israel. "Separation," taken to its extreme, could leave the Palestinians dry, darkened, and economically depressed.
No one is predicting that Israel will take such a drastic measure, but Barak assigned the Defense Ministry to formulate separation plans, and officials refuse to explain what the policy entails.
"Separation is coming," says Ahmed Qureia, a top Palestinian negotiator, referring to a future in which there are two states. But for the Israelis "to use separation now," he adds, "under the illusion that they will be able to draw borders, to keep settlements ... to keep control over Palestinian people - this we will fight against."
This consideration of unilateral action takes place in an environment where those who backed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process - which began with secret talks in Oslo, Norway, in 1993 - are increasingly unable to defend their strategy.
Most upset are Palestinian students, workers, and activists who say they have seen few benefits from seven years of negotiation. Meanwhile, a class of Palestinian leaders, once exiled in Lebanon and Algeria, has returned to take up positions of power. Many of these officials have adopted grandiose lifestyles amid a generally impoverished Palestinian population and had to defend against accusations of corruption.
Even Mr. Qureia, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and one of the Palestinians most closely identified with the Oslo process, is now calling for "a new framework, a new structure, a new way for the negotiations."
They are loath to admit it, but Qureia and other leaders seem to have misjudged just how badly Oslo has served most Palestinians. Now these officials want some fresh horses in midstream, and Qureia is calling for China, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations to participate as mediators in a process in which the US has been the sole broker.
But with peace negotiations discredited and popular unrest continuing, Arafat and his advisers may be contemplating an attempt to establish a state. On Nov. 15, a top Palestinian decisionmaking body will meet to address the issue, having put off the decision at a meeting in September to see what peace talks could achieve.
A third form of unilateralism could come from two militantly anti-Israel groups known as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In response to Israeli and US demands that Arafat protect Israel's security by restraining these groups, he has imprisoned hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members during the 1990s. But in recent weeks, he has released dozens of these prisoners, contributing to Israeli fears that the groups will attack civilians. Hardly anyone has forgotten a wave of attacks in the mid-1990s, carried out by Hamas suicide bombers, that killed scores of Israelis.
On Friday, a member of Islamic Jihad killed himself when the bomb he was carrying detonated in front of an Israeli military post in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli soldier was injured.
Hamas members have vowed to avenge the Palestinian "martyrs" of this intifadah by attacking Israel. This sort of reprisal would certainly invite further escalation from Israel that would worsen the conflict.
It isn't just the prospect of such attacks that troubles Israelis. Many one-time moderates are disturbed by what they see as the Palestinians' embrace of violence. That is one reason Barak is attempting to assemble a "unity" government that would include strong opponents of the Oslo peace process.
"There isn't a practical solution" to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, says Avraham Zvi Shav-Aretz, a teacher and guide in Jerusalem who once maintained a "wait-and-see" attitude about the peace process.
"There is only the need to stand firm," he says, in confronting the Palestinians.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society