As Israeli-Palestinian talks sink, fringe ideas gain traction

As time passes and a two-state solution looks less feasible, Israelis and Palestinians are more seriously considering ideas like a binational state.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
People hold Palestinian flags and a placard during a demonstration against the peace negotiation talks between Palestinians and Israeli in front of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's office in Ramallah, January 21.

As another round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks faltered on Wednesday, a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians say that the status quo is rapidly approaching a point at which establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel is impossible or unrealistic. 

"I still believe that two-state solution is the only solution and is possible," says Ron Pundak, an Israeli academic who started the informal peace talks with Palestinians that led to the Oslo Accords. "But I am afraid we will lead ourselves to a situation where the two-state solution is not viable, or people will think it’s not viable, which is almost as bad."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly told Jordan’s King Abdullah that a series of Amman meetings between negotiating envoys had run their course and that the Palestinians would seek the advice of the Arab League on the next step in their pursuit of statehood.

But several factors are expected to make it increasingly difficult for Israel to extract itself from the West Bank to create a Palestinian state: the rising number of Jewish settlers, eroding political will to order a painful and expensive withdrawal, and a drop in public support for a compromise.

What will come in place of the two-state solution? Suggestions range from a new Palestinian uprising, to a binational state, to a continuation of the status quo.   

No appetite for compromise in Israel

The key number regarding settler evacuation is not the more than 300,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank but the 80,000 to 100,000 of them who reside in isolated settlements far away from the future border. Though uprooting them is feasible for the Israeli government, it is unclear if there are leaders willing to clash with the settlers powerful political constituency.

"The question is not what is happening in the settlements, it’s what is happening in Israeli society in general," says Dror Etkes, a human rights activist and settlement monitor who sees Israel growing more conservative. "It's not a physical question, it’s a political question."

To be sure, a recent joint poll showed that a clear majority of Israelis and about half of Palestinians still support the outline of the two-state compromise proposed by former President Bill Clinton 11 years ago.

But they are becoming increasingly queasy about taking the risks for such a deal, and most public opinion surveys indicate that if elections were held today the new parliament would likely be run by a coalition of parties opposed to such a compromise.

"To get to a two-state solution, Israelis know exactly what kind of costs they will have to pay," says Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based public opinion expert. "They don’t see the benefits outweighing the costs. They are realists. In general, Israelis fear that everything around them is turning into a radical Islamic takeover" because of Islamist electoral victories in the wake of the Arab revolutions.

Palestinians are similarly gloomy: 78 percent oppose a resuming peace talks without a freeze in settlement construction and only 17 percent believe that Israel intends to withdraw from the West Bank, according to a survey from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Binational state gaining support

Following the talks yesterday, Israel, Jordan, and the European Union expressed hope that the Palestinians would return to the month-old exploratory dialogue aimed at setting up a basis for real negotiations. The liberal Israeli paper Haaretz reported that for the first time, the Israeli side laid out a general vision for a border with the Palestinians, but the newspaper didn’t give specifics. 

Expectations for the talks are already low for the rest of 2012. The Obama administration is likely to be wary of wading into thorny Arab-Israeli mediation during an election year. And observers believe that the gaps between Mr. Abbas and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which is heavily influenced by a far-right contingent, are too wide to bridge. 

Some Israeli doves are starting to talk about a binational state with the Palestinians, which would require both nations to give up on visions of self-determination.

Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Israeli parliament, recently suggested that such a solution would be preferable to the status quo. Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat, says that some are mulling the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation.

Prominent Palestinian leaders like chief negotiator Saeb Erekat have suggested the possibility as well, but many see it as a foil to pressure the Israeli public.

"One state is a brilliant and pretty solution, but it doesn’t mean that brilliant and pretty solutions will come about," says Kadoura Fares, a prominent member of the Palestinian Fatah party.

'Beyond the point of no return'

In the short- to medium-term, the more likely outcome is a continuation of the status quo, in which Israel retains control over the West Bank. Israel might grant the Palestinian enclaves greater autonomy and freedom of movement in an effort to deflect the inevitable international criticism allegations of an apartheid-like situation and the possible isolation.

Naftali Bennett, the former director general of the settler’s umbrella group Yesha Council, says Israel should annex settlements and open areas in the West Bank while granting Palestinian cities and villages enhanced autonomy. He says he hopes that eventually Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority, would agree to extend citizenship to West Bank Palestinians.

"The whole two-state approach is very 1990s. I don’t think any serious person believes there’s going to be a Palestinians state west of the Jordan [River]. We’re way beyond the point of no return," Mr. Bennett says.  

For the foreseeable future, there isn’t any significant pressure on Israel to compromise. For the first time since perhaps the 1980s, there are no negotiations, no violent uprising or war, and no international pressure for a deal.

But those conditions could eventually give way to a new phase of daily conflict, say experts.

"Maybe we need to do something that will to wake up the world that it can’t remain like this," says Mr. Fares. "There wont be a vacuum here."

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