Middle East peace: Is two-state solution kaput?

If a two-state deal isn't reached by 2011, then Palestinians should push for a one-state solution.

The seemingly perpetual Middle East "peace process" is now at a moment of truth. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said so himself at a press conference on Nov. 4.

Palestinian hopes that the Obama administration would remain resolute in insisting that Israel halt further expansion of its settlements on Palestinian land have been dashed. An especially low moment came when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently used the word "unprecedented" to praise Israel's minimalist promise of restraint in its settlement expansion program. In rapid reaction, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he did not wish to seek reelection because it was now clear that the US would not stand up to Israel.

Washington's capitulation raises the possibility that "the two-state solution is no longer an option and maybe the Palestinian people should refocus their attention on the one-state solution, where Muslims, Christians, and Jews live as equals," Mr. Erakat told the press.

His verbal bombshell just might signal a turning point in the long, frustrating search for peace with some measure of justice in Israel/Palestine.

Throughout the long years of the so-called peace process, deadlines have been consistently and predictably missed. Such failures have been facilitated by the practical reality that, for Israel, "failure" has had no consequences other than a continuation of the status quo, which for all Israeli governments has been not only tolerable but preferable to any realistically realizable alternative. For Israel, "failure" has always constituted "success," permitting it to continue confiscating Palestinian land, expanding its West Bank colonies, building bypass roads for Jews only, and generally making the occupation even more permanent and irreversible.

In everyone's interests, this must change. For there to be any chance of success in any new round of negotiations, failure must have clear and compelling consequences that Israelis would find unappealing – indeed, at least initially, nightmarish, since democratic demographics would inevitably spell the end of Jewish supremacy in the "Jewish State."

The Palestinian leadership, with or without Mr. Abbas, should now announce its willingness to resume negotiations with Israel but only on this express and irrevocable understanding: If a definitive peace agreement on a "two-state basis" has not been reached and signed by the end of 2010, the Palestinian people will have no choice but to seek justice and freedom through democracy – through full rights of citizenship in a single state in all of the land which, prior to 1948, was called Palestine, free of any discrimination based on race or religion and with equal rights for all who live there, as in any true democracy.

The Arab League should then publicly state that the very generous Arab Peace Initiative, which, since March 2002 has offered Israel permanent peace and normal diplomatic and economic relations in return for Israel's compliance with international law, will expire and be "off the table" if a definitive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement has not been signed by the end of 2010.

At this point – but not before – serious and meaningful negotiations can begin. Given how far Israeli settlements have encroached on Palestinian land, it may already be too late to achieve a decent two-state solution, but a decent two-state solution would never have a better chance of being achieved. If it is indeed too late, then Israelis, Palestinians, and the world will know and can thereafter focus their minds and efforts constructively on the only other decent alternative.

It is even possible that, if forced to focus during the coming year on the prospect of living in a fully democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens – which, after all, is what the United States and the European Union hold up in all other instances as the ideal form of political life – many Israelis might come to view this "threat" as less nightmarish than they traditionally have.

In this context, Israelis might wish to talk with some white South Africans. The transformation of South Africa's racial-supremicist ideology and political system into a fully democratic one has transformed them, personally, from pariahs into people welcomed throughout their region and the world. It has also ensured the permanence of a strong and vital white presence in southern Africa in a way that prolonging the flagrant injustice of a racial-supremicist ideology and political system and imposing fragmented and dependent "independent states" on the natives could never have achieved.

This is not a precedent to dismiss. It could and should inspire.

John V. Whitbeck, an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel, is author of "The World According to Whitbeck."

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