Palestinian statehood fades

A suicide attack on Monday that killed 14 casts more doubt on the viability of a Palestinian state.

US Undersecretary of State William Burns arrives in Israel today bearing a road map to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even as he does, analysts here say the basic concept underlying Middle East peace efforts – a state for both peoples – is becoming obsolete.

The road map, part of a US push to muster regional support for war against Iraq, outlines steps to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The idea of co-existing states, based on a land-for-peace formula, has been the blueprint for peace efforts for more than a decade. But as Mr. Burns arrives to tout the latest incarnation, Israelis and Palestinians are increasingly questioning whether an independent Palestinian entity is even feasible.

"If we were offered [a state] now it might be viable, but I don't know if it will be practical in three, five, seven years," says Palestinian Minister of Labor Ghassan Khatib. "Given political reality, the settlement policy, and the radicalization of Palestinian politics, I think that every day the viability of the two-state solution is less and less."

Widening gulf of mistrust

Analysts point to the steady sprawl of Israeli construction in the Occupied Territories, the vast gulf of mutual distrust that has widened over two years of bitter fighting and a lack of political will.

"Looking at the situation objectively it's hard to resist the conclusion that the two-state idea is in deep trouble," says one diplomat.

"That puts us in a very dangerous situation indeed. If you don't have a two-state solution you have a one-state solution, one state with two classes of citizens if that state is to have a Jewish character or a democratic secular state in Palestine, which means the death of Israel within 10 years."

Finger-pointing is rampant, with each side accusing the other of lacking the political resolve to make two states work. Israelis see Monday's bus bombing, which killed 14 and wounded around 50, as another example of the Palestinian failure to keep up their end of the land-for-peace bargain.

While Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat condemned the attack, claimed by Islamic Jihad, Israel's leadership declared Mr. Arafat responsible "by direct commission or omission" for the blast.

"Are they ready to put a stop to terror?" asks Ephraim Inbar, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "For the time being the answer would be negative and so they have failed the basic criteria of a state, establishing a monopoly over the use of power. You can't have a state with militias running around."

Critics who charge that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lacks the will to make concessions are wrong, says Mr. Inbar. "I don't think he's in love with the idea of a two-state solution, but he has said that he's in favor of a very incremental approach, an interim agreement, that he's willing to make painful concessions."

Strife over settlements

Some of those concessions are laid out in the US road map. In the first of three stages to take place through 2006, Palestinians must end violence and enact political reform while Israel, among other things, dismantles settlement outposts – small structures built without any of the necessary Israeli building permits, usually to extend the area controlled by a settlement – and freezes settlement construction. Settlements – communities built in the occupied territories and illegal under international law – are a thorny issue for Mr. Sharon. He has been a guiding force behind Israel's efforts to populate the West Bank since his tenure as agriculture minister in the late 1970s. Indeed, Sharon has agreed only in principle to previous calls for settlement freezes in the Tenet and Mitchell plans.

Critics add that adhering to the "road map" would not require great political will on Sharon's part. It only calls for the dismantling of settlement outposts built while he has been in office and for a freeze to last until Palestinian elections next year.

Others suggest that the road map is toothless. "Is there any way to see if Israel is violating the freeze and what kind of punitive action will the US take if Israel is found in violation?" asks Michael Terazi, a lawyer with the Negotiation Affairs Department of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

There have been scuffles between settlers and soldiers who dismantled some small outposts in the past week, but overall, settlements have averaged a 5.6 percent annual population growth rate since Sharon took office, says Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

A report recently issued by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, warns that the establishment of a viable, independent and democratic Palestinian state by 2005 is seriously threatened.

The report uses maps to make its point that the construction of settlements, a massive separation barrier between Israel and the territories, and roads in and around Jerusalem are strangling the development of a Palestinian state.

"The West Bank will be completely severed into two noncontiguous parts – north and south," the report says. "Palestinians will be effectively denied the possibility of any form of sovereignty and control over East Jerusalem."

A one-state future?

Compounding matters is the death of mutual trust. Polls show most Palestinians don't think this conflict can be solved peacefully and that support for militant Islamic parties, which advocate Israel's destruction, is growing.

Among Israelis, more people are talking about the concept of "transfer," literally moving Palestinians to another country. At the grassroots level, bumper stickers around Jerusalem urge people to "Deport the [expletives]."

Among the intelligentsia, prominent historian Benny Morris writes about the historical "logic of transfer," while former leftwing stalwarts like author A.B. Yehoshua now espouse the idea.

Against this background, the Abu Mazen report suggests Palestinians must "consider other options, including a one-state framework."

"It's the only option," says Mr. Terazi. "So much of the West Bank has been annexed that for practical purposes it's silly to talk about a Palestinian state. I have to tell people that the so-called state Israel wants to give you is no more than a series of reservations with limited water resources. Most Palestinians react the way the leadership does, 'Wow. It's all over. We don't want this, but what are we going to do?' " This kind of talk, to Israeli ears, is code for a demographic time bomb.

"They simply prefer to bide their time under Israeli rule while settlements spread throughout the West Bank and the total Palestinian population comes to outnumber Israelis, before they begin a campaign against Israeli "apartheid" and simply demand 'one man, one vote,' " writes Yossi Alpher, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. The answer, he suggests, is unilateral separation while there is still time.

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