Last chance for the two state solution

This week witnesses the election of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and the installment of a new Likud-Labor governing coalition in Israel. In many ways, these two events signal the countdown for the last chance to rescue the two state solution.

For two years I have been writing that the clock is ticking on the two state solution. The reasons are geography–the deadly spread of the settlements and outposts, creating an increasingly unbreakable interlock between Israelis and Palestinians; demography–the Palestinians are winning the population war; hard line Palestinian positions on "existential" issues (for Jews) like the right of return; and the suicide bombings that have persuaded traumatized Israelis that there is no partner for a two state solution. All this, while during the past four years the leadership on both sides as well as in the United States lacked a realistic strategy for peace, or even for ending the violence.

Now the Palestinians have elected a leader who openly condemns the previous strategy of violence and advocates a non-violent campaign for Palestinian rights. Those "rights" still include demands unacceptable to Israelis. But at least Abu Mazen is trying to reverse one of the reasons for that ticking clock.

In parallel, in Israel a new government has emerged, led by a courageous prime minister who has, in the face of heavy opposition from his own right wing, reversed one of his most staunchly held positions: this government is uniquely dedicated to the cause of dismantling settlements. Not enough settlements, and unilaterally rather than through negotiation, but this too is a vital start in the right direction.

Ariel Sharon is in any case not a candidate for an "end of conflict" peace process with the Palestinians. And Abbas’s positions on the right of return and the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif probably rule him out too as the Palestinian leader who will make comprehensive peace with Israel. Nevertheless, if the ticking clock was at five minutes to midnight a year ago, it has now been reset to 20 minutes to midnight. We have gained a little bit of breathing room.

What are the tests that confront Abbas and Sharon? And where can Bush offer vital help and support?

Abbas thinks he can succeed in ending the violence by persuading Palestinian militants, including from his own Fateh movement, to lay down their arms rather than by confronting them with force. Problematic as this tactic looks, he should be given the opportunity, because this is by far the best way for Palestinians to resolve their differences. With Yasser Arafat no longer sabotaging his efforts behind his back, and if Sharon can exercise the right degree of restraint, Abbas just might succeed.

Sharon has to make good on his promise to remove the settlements of Gaza and the northern West Bank. The settler opposition is dedicated to turning this into the most traumatic domestic event in 56 years of Israeli history. Abbas, who will receive additional territory in return for nothing and who will witness the beginning of the roll back of the settler movement, has every reason to see this as a Palestinian opportunity rather than an Israeli conspiracy, and to persuade his constituents accordingly. He must make every effort–by stopping violence and cooperating with the disengagement plan–to enable Sharon to succeed.

Progress regarding security and settlements–this is all that can happen in the coming year. But it is a lot. Settlement proliferation and lack of security are the two main reasons why the peace process collapsed in the first place. Any attempt to rekindle a roadmap-based peace process during this time will not only fail, it is liable to sabotage disengagement. Abbas must persuade his new constituency that disengagement, stability and reform are for the time being a sufficient quid pro quo for ending the violence. Like Sharon in the security field, the best move Abbas can make for his cause at the political level is to exercise restraint.

Sharon can help him by offering incentives and confidence-building measures like prisoner release. Bush can help too by pressuring Sharon to make the necessary gestures, and by leading a campaign to aid the Palestinians economically. Finally, Bush must lead the international community, particularly the European Union, in stepping back from the roadmap, thereby hopefully allowing Israelis and Palestinians to step back from the brink of endless conflict.

A year or so from now Israel will almost certainly hold new elections. Meanwhile, in the coming months Palestine itself faces more elections: for the legislative council and, perhaps most important, within the Fateh movement. When the smoke has cleared from all the momentous events of the coming year we will have a much better idea where we are heading. If by then the attempts to move in the right direction have failed, it may well be too late.