After much effort, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has succeeded in resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through "proximity talks." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting Canada this weekend, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas meet separately with U.S. envoy George Mitchell to discuss the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
On the surface, chances for a historic deal in the Holy Land appear to be as high as ever. Mr. Obama is committed to Palestinian statehood, having described the reduction of Middle East conflicts as "a vital national security interest of the United States," and taken a firm stance against Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank. Mr. Netanyahu has accepted the two-state solution and agreed, under American pressure, to a temporary halt in settlement expansion. Mr. Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister, are dedicated peacemakers who prevent terrorism and promote better governance in the Palestinian Authority.
Moreover, the contours of a two-state solution are well accepted globally: Israeli withdrawal and settlement removal from the West Bank, less major settlement "blocs" annexed to Israel in return for land swaps; security arrangements to prevent terror; and compromises over the status of Jerusalem and refugees. It has become a diplospeak cliché that "the solution is known, but not the way to get there."
Alas, the Palestinian state appears as elusive as ever. Both sides deeply mistrust each other, and focus on winning over the American referee. Israeli officials believe Mr. Abbas and Mr. Fayyad will go through the motions of talks while striving to impose a deal on Israel through a U.S. peace plan or a UN Security Council resolution. Mr. Netanyahu, the former debating champion who has made a career of defending Israel's case, wants to redraw the ballpark and break away from the "inevitable endgame" - the legacy of the failed Oslo and Annapolis talks - focusing instead on Israel's security needs.
U.S. and Israeli officials assert that nothing will be achieved without direct talks. But they don't know yet how to get there, and all involved anticipate a major crisis by September, when the Israeli settlement moratorium ends and the Arab League deadline for indirect talks arrives. Mr. Abbas wishes for an American showdown with Mr. Netanyahu, who in turn hopes that Mr. Obama will be too immersed in the U.S. midterm elections to confront Israel over the settlements. Indeed, in recent weeks, Mr. Obama's administration has changed its tone regarding Israel to the positive, sponsoring its bid to join the OECD.
But even direct talks are at high risk of failure. So far, Israel's maximum offer falls below the Palestinian minimum. Mr. Abbas rejected the peace proposed by Ehud Olmert, Mr. Netanyahu's predecessor, in 2008 and now faces a less generous right-wing government in Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu warns that an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will be followed by an Islamic takeover and rocket attacks on its towns, villages and economic hubs, just as happened after Israel pulled out of Lebanon and Gaza in the past decade. He demands an IDF presence along the borders of a future Palestine, to prevent arms smuggling. The Palestinians will hear none of it, viewing any Israeli deployment as an occupation in disguise. And security is considered to be the easiest to resolve of the "core issues" - compromises over Jerusalem or refugees appear beyond belief.
What can be done, then, to avoid another catastrophe like Camp David in 2000, which ignited a decade of bloodshed? Rather than striving in vain for the holy grail of "a peace to end all peace," or playing an endless blame game, the best way forward appears to be a partial deal to establish a Palestinian state within interim borders. It would give Palestinians their civil rights and negotiate the final settlement with Israel. Mr. Netanyahu has warmed to the idea, but Mr. Abbas opposes it, fearing that Israel will turn the interim into permanent. His concerns should be mitigated through a U.S. commitment to conclude the process.
An interim deal carries the risk of both sides rushing to catch as much as they can before the final stage. But its advantages overcome the cons: Israelis will learn to treat Palestine with dignity as an equal state, rather than an occupied zone. The moral burden of ruling over an unwilling hostile population, and the demographic threat to Israel's identity, will be lifted. Mr. Obama, the key player in the drama, would justify his Nobel Peace Prize.
Are the leaders up to their peacemaking task or will they merely stumble on to the next crisis?
Aluf Benn is editor-at-large of the Israeli daily Haaretz.
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