Israel's upcoming Jan. 22 parliamentary election had been expected to be a status quo affair leading to an easy victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Instead, it's turned into a race to the extreme right that is threatening to kill the two-state solution. And Washington seems oblivious.
The latest polls still show Netanyahu emerging as the next prime minister, but in a weakened position atop a coalition filled with politicians adamantly opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. This new configuration will narrow Netanyahu's freedom of action and ability to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians.
On the Palestinian side, moderates President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have both lost popular support to Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence. How much longer can the moderates hang on, absent some progress toward a Palestinian state, before the Islamic winds blowing through the Arab world sweep them away?
It's a major headache for President Obama, who no longer has the luxury of non-engagement in the Middle East. Without swift, firm and decisive action to reignite a meaningful peace process and to push for a swift deal, the two-state option may disappear forever, leaving Israelis and Palestinians alike facing a future of endless conflict in a region already racked with instability.
Obama has been hanging back during the Israeli election campaign and until he can put together his national security team for his second term. But the need is now urgent. He needs to rally his Quartet partners -- the EU, the UN and Russia -- and put together a concrete plan and timetable for a solution. Obama should consider an early trip to the Middle East to get things back on track. Whatever tactics he adopts, the president urgently needs to use political capital and diplomatic muscle to get the parties back to the table and then make the no doubt difficult concessions necessary for a deal -- because the alternatives are truly frightening.
The parameters of such a plan remain clear: an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines with some small land swaps; secure borders for Israel; an equitable deal on Jerusalem and, of course, statehood for the Palestinians.
We're now past the point of apportioning blame for a diplomatic deadlock that is almost two-and-a-half years long. Sure, there's plenty of blame to go around but the overriding fact is that Israeli settlements are fast eating away at possibility of ever establishing a Palestinian state and Israel's lurch to the political right is accelerating that process.
New Israeli plans to build in the East Jerusalem settlement of Givat Hamatos would cut Bethlehem off from Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, while proposed new settlements in an area known as EI east of Jerusalem would drive a massive wedge between the north and south of the West Bank.
Israeli politicians have been indulging in what can only be described as a settlement frenzy. As Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu block has slipped back in the polls, the story of the election has been the meteoric rise of the extreme right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) Party whose leader, Naftali Bennett, advocates the immediate annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank.
Bennett looks like he is emerging as the leader of the third and possibly even the second largest party in the new Knesset with up to 18 seats, the same as is projected for the opposition Labor Party which once dominated Israeli politics.
Netanyahu's own ranks now include figures like Moshe Feiglin, a firebrand who wants to rebuild a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques now stand -- the third holiest site in Islam. He was arrested there this week trying to pray, a deliberately inflammatory act.
Past attempts to encroach on what Muslims call the "Noble Sanctuary" have been met by outrage and violent resistance. In September 2000, a visit to the site by then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon surrounded by hundreds of riot police was the spark that ignited what became known as the Second Intifada which, in the next five years, took the lives of an estimated 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis.
Feiglin also found time to address a "one-state solution" conference in Jerusalem where he outlined a plan to pay Palestinian families $500,000 each to emigrate. Because of the low birth rates in Western nations, they will welcome immigrants who "know how to build," he said.
This is the same man who told The Atlantic Monthly's Jeffrey Goldberg nine years ago:
"You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches."
Several other Likud parliamentarians attending the conference, including Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who said Israel should move toward the gradual or total annexation of the West Bank while scrapping the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993, which still provide the framework for an eventual peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Last week, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who is No. 3 on Netanyahu's election slate, said "two states for two peoples was never part of Likud's election platform." Knesset Member Tzipi Hotovely, No. 15 on the list, said Netanyahu had only adopted the policy to "placate the world."
Without vigorous U.S. leadership at the highest level, we may soon be looking at a Middle East in which both sides are governed by extremists who reject the other's right to exist on the land. That's not a future anyone should want to see.