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Analysis: Beyond Kerry, seeking new Mideast ideas

Friday - 4/25/2014, 12:56pm  ET

FILE - In this July 29, 2013 file photo, Secretary of State John Kerry, left, sits across from Israel's Justice Minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni, third right, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, second right, Yitzhak Molcho, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, fourth right, and Mohammed Shtayyeh, aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, at an Iftar dinner, which celebrates Ramadan, at the State Department in Washington, marking the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Nine months of U.S.-driven diplomacy have left Israelis and Palestinians less hopeful than ever about a comprehensive peace agreement to end their century of conflict. Although a formula may yet be found to somehow prolong the talks past an end-of-April deadline, they are on the brink of collapse and the search is already on for new ideas. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

DAN PERRY
Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Nine months of U.S.-driven diplomacy have left Israelis and Palestinians less hopeful than ever about a comprehensive peace agreement to end their century of conflict. Although a formula may yet be found to somehow prolong the talks past an end-of-April deadline, they are on the brink of collapse and the search is already on for new ideas.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts have exposed vast differences: On sharing Jerusalem, resolving the situation of millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, and even borders, the sides seem nowhere close to agreement. And Thursday, Israel said it halted the talks in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision a day earlier to form a unity government with the Islamic militant Hamas movement, which Israel and the West consider a terrorist group.

"Unfortunately, under the current conditions, it is apparently not possible to reach 'end of conflict' -- or, in more poetic language, a peace agreement," said dovish Cabinet member Amram Mitzna, a former general in charge of the West Bank.

Mohammed Madani, a leading member of Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, said the Palestinian leader told visiting Israeli politicians that the Palestinians "cannot continue with talks in vain."

He said the Palestinians will press with their applications for membership as a state with various United Nations and other world bodies, a strategy aimed at entrenching the view that all the area Israel captured in the 1967 war is a foreign country and not -- as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have it -- "disputed territory."

The effort by Palestinians and their supporters to engineer an economic boycott of Israel also likely will grow.

And so will concerns that a third Palestinian uprising will erupt. This week, Fatah's military wing issued a call for "armed resistance until the liberation of all Palestine" -- language not heard from that quarter for years.

Some Israelis, like powerful Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, call for a punitive annexation of parts of the West Bank, which seems a hollow threat but inflames tempers further.

Israel's more moderate political parties can be expected to try to topple Netanyahu, either forcing new elections or organizing an alternative majority in the Knesset which would be more forthcoming with the Palestinians. It's not inconceivable, given that they control almost half of the body, Israel's right wing is divided and the angst in the country is strong.

Beneath the surface there is a powerful force at work: A growing current in Israel says that one way or another, the country must separate itself from the Palestinians with a real border. If not, the occupied territories and Israel will eventually come to be seen as one entity, with 12 million people, half of whom are Arabs -- hardly the Zionist vision of a Jewish state.

Meanwhile, the situation is messy: Some of the Arabs under Israel's control, in pre-1967 Israel, have citizenship, while those in the West Bank -- whose land and entry points and water resources are controlled by Israel -- do not. Even though the West Bank is formally not in Israel, the country builds settlements there and their residents vote in Israeli elections. The settlers can freely enter and leave the West Bank, while Palestinians cannot. The situation seems unsustainable, and is starting to draw comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa even in Israel itself.

Here are some directions the discourse may take:

PARTIAL SETTLEMENT -- WITH OLD CITY THROWN IN?

Mitzna and a host of others, including former minister Yossi Beilin, architect of the 1990s accords establishing the Palestinian Authority, call for an interim arrangement in which the Palestinians would get statehood on most but not all the land they seek. They would get nothing on the refugees, but would not have to renounce any further claims either.

The Palestinians fear that freed of what Israelis call the "demographic danger," Israel's motivation to ever cede anything further will vanish.

"The state with provisional borders is a trick that we ... will never accept," Fatah official Tawfik Tirawi said. "From our experience with Israel, the provisional turns into final."

Israel would have to present serious enticements to overcome such objections.

"We need to propose such a generous offer that the world will say to the Palestinians, 'You cannot reject this,'" veteran commentator Ehud Yaari said.

Such an enticement might be a new arrangement in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, a key issue which to date has been tethered to the final settlement idea. It might instead agree even within an interim deal to joint custody of the area with its Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites, possibly with the inclusion other Muslim countries and outside powers -- a sort of Vatican of the Holy Land. That would be a big symbolic prize -- even if it still leaves open the question of the rest of east Jerusalem, adjacent to the ancient area, which the Palestinians also seek as a capital.

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