"Unsustainable." That was President Barack Obama's blunt assessment on Tuesday night of the current state of affairs between Israel and the Palestinians. Acknowledging the obstacles in his path given the political changes on both sides, the President pledged to follow a "philosophy of persistence" in pursuit of a two-state solution, citing Northern Ireland's once unthinkable rapprochement as his inspiration. It may, however, take more than persistent cajoling to bridge a gulf that is widening rather than narrowing.
Israel's leaders on Tuesday night concluded a political deal that will put the hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in power, with the centrist Labor Party of Ehud Barak and the far-right Yisrael Beitenu Party of Avigdor Lieberman as his main partners. Barak narrowly won his party's endorsement to join a government whose leader is not committed to a two-state solution, and whose Foreign Ministerdesignate, Lieberman, expresses harshly anti-Arab views. The Labor leader insisted that the presence of his party would put a brake on the more belligerent instincts of some of the government's coalition partners. But even if that proves to be true, there is still a recipe for paralysis on the question of peace with the Palestinians. Barak may be able to talk Netanyahu out of certain actions in respect to expanding the settlements that are most likely to antagonize Washington, but Netanyahu is unlikely to be persuaded to move in any meaningful way to end Israel's occupation of the West Bank. So, Netanyahu's comment that a "unity government will bring stability" to Israel may mean that it will simply stabilize the deadlock. (See pictures of Israel's Gaza offensive.)
While anxious observers in Washington and elsewhere have decried Netanyahu's victory as a setback for the prospect of a two-state solution, it's worth remembering that progress on that front had been scant even under the outgoing centrist Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, who is now the leader of the Kadima opposition. And the Bush Administration, rather than press for the implementation of a peace deal, had confined itself to staging talks between Olmert's government and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in search of what was termed a "shelf agreement" a detailed draft of a two-state peace plan that could serve as a kind of eyes-on-the-prize political horizon to be implemented at a more favorable moment. But even that proved elusive, as Olmert's government, certainly more centrist than the incoming one, could not agree with the moderate Abbas leadership on where to draw the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, the fate of Jerusalem and that of Palestinian refugees, and other key questions.
It's not only on the Israeli side that positions have hardened since then. Abbas' popularity has declined steadily to the point where few believe he could win a Palestinian election that must be held sometime within next year. Abbas is involved in talks to create a unity government with Hamas, which remains the ruling party in his legislature (it is unable to meet because of the number of lawmakers in Israeli detention). Abbas' influence is declining even within his own Fatah movement, many of whose members believe he achieved nothing for the Palestinians in his decade of patient negotiations under Washington's tutelage. His aides say he won't negotiate with Netanyahu unless the Likud leader embraces a two-state solution.
While Netanyahu will put on his friendliest face for Washington's benefit "I will negotiate with the PA for peace," he told an Israeli business conference on Wednesday his idea of peace has largely focused on building up the Palestinian economy and institutions of self-government in the various enclaves of the West Bank that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu has stressed his belief that Israel's security needs are incompatible with sovereign independence for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. And he has made clear that he will not deal with a government that includes Hamas, and expects Washington to do the same. Indeed, his goal remains toppling the Hamas government in Gaza. But Abbas is seeking a unity agreement with that same group, which is likely to eclipse the Palestinian President at the polls the next time Palestinians are allowed to vote that is, if Abbas remains Fatah's candidate. He could even lose a primary challenge to a more Hamas-friendly leader like the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti.
Prospects for advancing by consensus to a two-state solution on the basis of the current political alignments are hard to see. Indeed, Netanyahu, in dealing with Washington, will emphasize reversing Iran's nuclear development, rather than making peace with the Palestinians, as his top concern. And in that position he has the unanimous backing of most of Israel's political spectrum.
The problem is that the Palestinians are likely to make sure they're higher on Israel's and Washington's agenda. As things stand, there is no cease-fire agreement in Gaza, where Palestinians are chafing under an ongoing economic siege that prevents reconstruction. Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas have failed to agree on a prisoner exchange to secure the release of captured Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit. There are growing signs that the population of the Fatah-controlled West Bank may be beginning to stir in renewed rebellion against Israel's security wall, checkpoints and expanding settlements. And Israel's moves to consolidate its grip on East Jerusalem, its planned settlement activity in the West Bank and this week's unrest in the Israeli-Arab town of Umm al-Fahm all suggest the region remains a tinder box. By this summer, the challenge facing Washington may be less about a long-term peace than on putting out the fires of an immediate upsurge in violence on any or all of those fronts. The status quo is, indeed, unsustainable, but you wouldn't want to bet against it getting worse.