Despite the obstacles, the blocked road to a two-states solution remains the best, and probably the only, way out of the spreading Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the pursuit were to be abandoned, the remaining options are grim.
Optimists argue that Ariel Sharon's unilateral decision to dismantle the settlements in Gaza, as well as four outlying ones in the West Bank--the Israeli cabinet is to vote again before the decision is implemented--signals the first stage of a two-states solution coming into effect. The process has to be incremental and Gaza, they say, would be the start. Sharon, who has always been patron and protector of the settlers' movement, could also be the man who has the strength to call on them to make sacrifices for the greater good. In the same way that General de Gaulle told the French settlers in Algeria that their time was up, so Sharon could turn on the Israeli settlers, or at least on a few of them.
The leaderless Palestinians will, it is further argued, eventually accept what land and sovereignty the Israelis allow them. They will understand that only thus can they escape from 37 years of occupation. The futility of the current intifada is plain: it has worsened the Palestinians' condition; and the suicide bombing has lost them outside support and, some would say, the moral high ground. Their leaders are in prison, real or virtual. They have little respect for the corrupt, impotent administration that is still supposed to run their civic affairs. In their hopeless and bedraggled state, the Palestinians will make the most of "independence".
The rest of the Arab world will breathe a sigh of relief, sensing a respectable way of finally closing the door on the injustice suffered by a small group of importunate people. A fudge over control of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem will serve to neutralise Islamic passion. Once Palestine is no longer a burning issue for public opinion, queering their pitch with the United States, the Arab states can turn to questions of much more immediate moment to themselves.
But there is little evidence that this vision is based in reality. The Israelis may well dismantle the clusters of small Gazan settlements, and bring their army home from a place that has no religious history and has always been troublesome to rule. But there is no sign that Israel intends to dismantle the big settlements in the West Bank, and it is these that are the real trouble.
On the contrary, there is already a move to enlarge some of the West Bank settlements in "compensation" for the proposed Gazan withdrawal. It is unrealistic to believe that any of the Palestinian land destined to be on the Israeli side of the new security barrier will ever be handed back. The result would be an independent West Bank cut into three or four separate cantons by the expanding settlements and the roads that integrate them with Israel-an independence that some say would resemble the Bantustans of South Africa during apartheid.
The Palestinians are in a bad way, without jobs, money or freedom. Those with the education and the contacts to move out of the region are increasingly doing so; those with neither are staying. Yet the notion that they would be willing to settle for whatever the Israelis decide to give them is unconvincing. Almost certainly, they would not. Their national identity is strong; they believe passionately in their own rights. The probability is that they will continue to struggle for self-determination.
And, if they do so, they can probably count on being supported by other Arabs, however reluctantly. Arab governments may yearn to be rid of a problem to which many of them give lip-service only, but they cannot ignore the strength of popular "street" support for the Palestinians. Their cause fires demonstrations against unpopular rulers, and those rulers have to be careful. Governments elsewhere need to be careful, too. …