Eighteen more months at least

After 36 months of conflict and bloodshed, both Israelis and Palestinians are worse off. We are further from a peaceful settlement, our economies are suffering (the Palestinian far more than the Israeli), and our leaders are increasingly ostracized internationally.

Moreover, our military and political leaders on both sides have erred grievously in assessing that the use of brutal force could tip the scales in this struggle. Instead, we have an increasingly dirty war, initiated by Palestinian suicide bombings but pursued by Israel as well.

Only the extremists have gained. The Islamic radicals and the Jewish settlers, both of whom oppose an agreed, fair and permanent two state solution, have moved closer to achieving their perversely shared goal. In the course of three years, Israelis and Palestinians have progressively lost the capacity to communicate with one another, and their leaders have lost all credibility in the opposing camp. The settlements have spread, and the Palestinian birthrate has further closed the population gap. Soon, very soon, geography and demography will have defeated the last hope of a realistic repartitioning of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine into two separate ethnic states, and Israel will be on the slippery slope toward losing its Jewish and democratic character.

Paradoxically, in other ways Israel’s overall strategic situation has improved considerably over these three years, thanks to the events and acts precipitated by 9/11. The American occupation of Iraq has reduced to nil the danger to Israel of a new Arab military coalition (an "eastern front") attacking it, thereby radically diminishing the threat of conventional war. And the United States campaign against Islamic radical terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of rogue states has, for the first time, given Israel a major ally in countering these threats.

Only the demographic/geographic strategic threat has grown. And while it is entirely within Israel’s unilateral capabilities to deal with it, the body politic of the Jewish people appears to be paralyzed by fear: fear of angry settlers and their rabbis, fear of hurting our vaunted deterrent profile by displaying "weakness", fear of making unilateral concessions–fear, indeed, of recognizing that the strategic benefits of unilateral withdrawal by Israel far outweigh the tactical drawbacks.

Under these tragic circumstances, the only potential ray of light is the fence. As an instrument originally designed to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers, the fence is a quintessential byproduct of three years of intifada. Yes, it is ugly and unpleasant, and hurtful to innocent Palestinians in even its most benign permutation. But a fence separating Israel from the West Bank, as close as possible to the green line, could generate the separation both peoples need, and might begin to delegitimize the settlements lying beyond.

The US administration, which won’t pressure Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over the settlements, the roadblocks and his other obligations under the nearly defunct roadmap, has seemingly decided to get tough on the fence, make sure it sticks close to the green line, and prevent Sharon from hijacking it for political purposes. Perhaps because it perceives that the domestic political costs in America of exercising this particular type of pressure are minimal. If it keeps up the pressure, we may end up with a fence that more or less approximates the borders that Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat nearly agreed on at Taba in 2001, during the early months of the intifada.

If the fence begins to function as a border as well and contributes to a positive separation, it would be the supreme irony of this intifada, which broke out largely because Arafat could not or would not accept Barak’s terms. But then again, given that the two sides are incapable of solving their differences through logic and rationality, they may just have to settle for messy solutions that evolve over time in unintended ways.

But the fence is being built slowly, and it can only reduce violence and slowly create new facts–not solve the conflict. Nor, beyond applying pressure on the fence, does the Bush administration appear to have any realistic strategy for ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Neither do Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat. Thus, bearing in mind the American election timetable, we are probably in for another 18 months at least of conflict and suffering.