ON THE NIGHT OF JAN. 28, as revolutionary crowds began to shake the foundations of the Mubarak regime, a friend on the occupied West Bank sent out an e-mail. He had spent the day in a Ramallah cafe with Palestinians, who cheered each time the Al-Jazeera feed showed an Egyptian police vehicle hit by a Molotov cocktail. The Palestine Papers--leaked documents detailing the Palestinian Authority's suppliant efforts to negotiate an independent state with Israel's previous government--had been released only days before, but they were already old news. The PA didn't matter, the negotiations didn't matter. The cafe crowd seemed intuitively to recognize that the Egyptian upheaval would change their world, in ways impossible to predict.
Palestine is occupied by America's ally Israel, and Palestinian bids for liberation, whether peaceful--as in the 1987 Intifada--or armed, have invariably been spurned by America. Might Egypt's revolution alter that equation, freeing the clogged arteries of American discourse and focusing attention for the first time on Arab demands for justice? While it is too early to tell, it was clear, even before the January rising, that the American-sponsored peace process had exhausted its possibilities.
Two weeks earlier, I had been in Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank as part of a fact-finding delegation of Churches for Middle East Peace. CMEP is an earnest group, representing a broad coalition of Christian churches.
For a generation it has advocated the so-called two-state solution, an Israel living in peace with secure and recognized borders beside its Palestinian neighbor, with Jerusalem accessible as a holy city to three faiths. The consensus view of our delegation, and certainly my own impression, was that a two-state solution had never been more remote since the Oslo process began 20 years before.
I had visited Israel and the occupied territories as part of a similar delegation five years earlier. Then we heard many say that the window for a two-state solution was closing rapidly. But a sense of hope remained. The two-state solution--the simplest way to deliver security and a modicum of justice to both peoples--seemed achievable. Hamas had won an election, but Fatah and Hamas, the two main Palestinian factions, were still speaking to one another. Gaza had not been severed from the West Bank. In recent memory there had been fruitful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, most notably at the Sinai town of Taba, evidence that an agreement acceptable to both sides was in reach.
On this trip, there was no such optimism. No discussions were taking place between the parties, nor was there prospect of any. As the Palestine Papers reveal, the heart of the impasse is Israel's insistence on retaining settlements on land the Palestinians would need so their state could be contiguous, not a hodgepodge of townships separated by Israeli-controlled roads, settlements, and checkpoints. Underlying Israel's position is not fear but the country's sense of its strength. Israel was once shaken by the Intifada of 19871988, a rolling wave of protest throughout Gaza and the West bank that galvanized the West to get a meaningful peace process going. And though the Palestinians suffered far more deaths than Israel in the second, more violent uprising of 2001-2002, Israel too had significant casualties.
But Israel is no longer vulnerable to Palestinian actions. The Palestinian population is now geographically divided: one and a half million in Gaza, which resembles a large prison whose borders, airspace, and seacoast, access to food, building materials, and the technology to acquire drinking water are controlled by Israel. The most favored group of Palestinians lives in Israel proper, where it faces discrimination in housing, education, and employment but enjoys the basic framework of Israeli citizenship rights. The Palestinian majority is in the West Bank, shuttered behind a formidable separation wall routed so as to sever Palestinian villages from land and water resources Israel covets. …