Worldview: Israeli-Palestinian effort a victim of neglect

Palestinian protesters argue with an Israeli soldier during a protest against Israel's separation barrier in the village of Maasarah, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem Friday, Nov. 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

JERUSALEM - Traveling in Israel and the West Bank, and talking to leaders on both sides, one thing soon becomes apparent: The Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the last two decades is dead.

Israeli leaders don't believe in it, Palestinian leaders have given up on it, and the White House has abandoned it.

An end to talks on a two-state solution means a slide toward a "one-state solution" in which Palestinians outnumber Jews inside Israel's borders. This ensures perpetual violence.

There was a promising alternative to this grim prospect but Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders all failed to seize it. And so the peace process died.

There have been no direct Israeli-Palestinian talks for many months. Instead, Palestinians are seeking recognition of their state at the United Nations. And Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas looks set to reconcile with Hamas, the radical Palestinian group that rules in Gaza and is anathema to the United States and Israel.

Meantime, the two top U.S. officials in the peace process - Dennis Ross and George Mitchell - have stepped down, and President Obama has turned his back on the issue he once championed.

Why did things develop this way?

In part, because the political scene in today's Israel has moved further to the right than at any time in my 40 years of covering the region. During my stay, Israeli media were focused on bills by right-wing lawmakers aimed at giving conservatives more control over Israel's Supreme Court and restricting foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations that criticize government policies.

In this climate - and given 18 years of failed talks - Israelis have little faith in the peace process. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he would accept two states, but his concept of Palestinian statehood is too limited for any Palestinian leader to accept. Nor has he shown any willingness to challenge the powerful Jewish settler movement, whose numbers constantly increase on the West Bank.

And in part, the process ended because of public pressure on Abbas to produce some results, in the wake of the Arab Spring. Confronted with expanding Israeli settlements and limited prospects for a state - the Palestinian opted to take his quest to the United Nations.

Abbas' chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told me this tack was not meant to preclude negotiations, but to save the dying two-state option by enshrining it at the United Nations.

The Obama administration could have worked to channel the Palestinians' U.N. request in a positive direction - back toward negotiations. Instead, the White House joined Israel in threatening to punish the Palestinian Authority. We now have a situation with little prospects for a return to talks.

There was a promising alternative to this grim impasse: a set of creative peace proposals put forward in 2008 by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, after two years of discussions with Abbas. Well-informed Israelis and Palestinians tell me these ideas could have propelled the process forward. But Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders all dropped the ball.

The two men tentatively agreed on a demilitarized Palestinian state, with extensive security guarantees for Israel; they mapped out a formula for Jerusalem as the capital of two states, with a condominium of Israel, Palestine, along with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, over the holy places.

On borders, they were still dickering - Olmert said Israel would keep about 6.3 percent of the West Bank, including many Israeli settlements; Abbas countered with 1.9 percent. But they enshrined the principle of equal swaps of land for anything Israel retained. The issue of Palestinian refugees was not fully resolved.

And here is where the tragedy occurred. Abbas did not reject Olmert's offer, but he didn't accept it. Then came Israel's Gaza invasion in December 2008, and Olmert's decision to step down because of corruption charges.

Condoleezza Rice, as she relates in her memoir, No Higher Honor, turned over the negotiating file to the Obama team. Olmert advised Hillary Rodham Clinton not to waste time with new proposals, but to put his peace framework on the table and encourage both sides to discuss it.

Instead, the Obama team demanded that Israel first stop all settlements, yet failed to put this demand within a larger framework. Olmert warned U.S. officials that a freeze alone made no sense; even the Palestinians were not keen on it, but could demand no less than the Americans did.

Netanyahu has shown no interest in the Olmert formula, which his team regards as a failure. Yet had the Obama team backed it, it might have provided a vitally needed strategic framework for talks.

Instead, Israel and the Palestinians have drifted away from negotiations, as Obama busies himself with elections. The peace process as we've known it is over, but the status quo can't last.


E-mail Trudy Rubin