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Robert K. Lifton

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Quo Vadis? The Future for Israel and the Palestinians

Posted: 12/30/11 08:00 PM ET

After more than a year of stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it is clear that for the foreseeable future there will be no deal resolving their differences and establishing a Palestinian state. It is fruitless to blame one side or the other. In my article in the Huffington Post titled "The Very Hard Decisions Required For Peacemaking Between Israel and the Palestinians," I pointed out why the leaders of both sides face obstacles to deal making that make it very difficult for each of them even if they so desired. Simply put, for the Palestinians, it is giving up the right of millions of Diaspora Palestinians to return to their former homes in Israel. For Israel, it is the ability to remove thousands of settlers from their homes in areas that would be included in the Palestinian state in a two state solution. But it goes beyond the fact that these obstacles operate to frustrate the desires of the parties. In truth, neither leader seems to desire a deal enough to make any meaningful compromise. The government of Israel, led by Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition, has shown no willingness to compromise in order to make a deal and continues to expand settlements despite international pressure to stop. And the Fatah government of Mr. Abbas, by embracing Hamas, has given Israel a legitimate reason to argue that it can't countenance any deal with an entity committed to its destruction.

It seems appropriate, then, to speculate on what the future holds for the parties under these circumstances of a stalemate. Here are some of the scenarios that one can project.

Scenario 1. This is the scenario that the Netanyahu government seems to believe will prevail. Israel will continue to expand settlements in existing settlement areas under the rubric of expansion to meet family requirements. Settlement expansion will continue in Jerusalem, which the Israelis argue is to be retained by them as their capital in any negotiated deal. And settlers will continue illegal settlement activity, making small inroads into new areas, with no effective government response. The United States and some European nations may make some statements about the negative effect such activity has on the potential for a two state solution, but American elections and European involvement in financial issues will keep them from taking any meaningful action. Even after the U.S. elections if Obama wins, it is likely that his focus on the Middle East will diminish in favor of emphasis on Asia and other parts of the world where the payoff will be greater and a Republican President is hardly expected to pressure Israel. Ultimately, the Palestinian territory will consist of a series of "bantustans" which could be turned over to Palestinian governance in some form that falls short of a real state that can ever threaten Israel.

In this scenario it is difficult to predict what course of action will be followed by other states in the region. Iran's efforts at nuclear capability will continue to be seen as an existential threat to Israel and Israel's response remains totally unpredictable. Egypt and Jordan, which have formal peace treaties with Israel, are under considerable pressures from their populations for internal changes and pressure may also build up to change their relationship with Israel. Countering that pressure is their dire need for the continuation of American financial support, which they would lose if they terminated their peace treaties. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will make their usual statements condemning Israel's actions and calling for a deal with the Palestinians. But their focus will be on Iran and hoping that Israel will act as a buffer to Iran's expansionist ambitions.

Scenario 2. This is the scenario that the Palestinians seem to believe will happen. Fatah and Hamas will come to some resolution of their differences and present a unity government of what they will call "technocrats," that will eliminate pressure on Hamas to revoke its call for the elimination of Israel. They may have to increase their missile attacks on Israel and provoke Israel's more violent response in order to capture the world's attention, once again. But one way or the other, they will use Israel's relentless settlement activity to successfully press members of the Security Council and the United Nations to establish a Palestinian state, which will include at least half of Jerusalem. Since the state will be recognized by the UN, it will have as its borders the 1967 green lines, forcing Israel to move its settlers out of the Palestinian side of the green line or make a deal favorable to the Palestinians to trade other land for some of those settlement areas. The Palestinians will not have to formally renounce the "right of return" in the scenario of a UN delivered state.

Scenario 3. The Palestinians, with a new, younger leadership, inspired by some of today's Palestinian intellectuals, will decide to forgo what is left of a two state solution and press for a bi-national state made up of Jews and Palestinians. When Israel refuses to accept the Palestinians as citizens with equal rights, including the right to vote, they will start a campaign to brand Israel as an apartheid state, seeking world wide boycotts to pressure Israel into conforming to their demands. These demands, they know, based on the demographics of Israeli and Palestinian birthrates will eventually result on a Muslim majority in the land.

These are the most likely scenarios, but as we have learned from experience, the unexpected is usual fare in this very volatile region. The "Arab Spring" has brought with it new elements of uncertainty. For example, if the Assad government in Syria were to fall, it can have implications for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza that affect Israel in ways we can't foresee. The apparent power struggle in Iran between supporters of Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the clerics led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can also have consequences that affect the region. In short, as the song goes: "The future is hard to tell. Que serra, serra. What will be will be."

Mr. Lifton, a businessman and political activist is writing a book entitled "Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the "Greatest Generation.'"