Things could be worse. The Aqsa mosque has not been blown up. The Western Wall is still standing. The supreme Palestinian symbol, Yasser Arafat, has not (at time of writing) been assassinated. The wider region has not exploded into open warfare. Chemical, biological or nuclear attacks have not happened. The abyss is deep and if the free fall is not checked soon even the current grim reality may one day be viewed with a certain nostalgia.
It is not too late to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - based on two viable states - but time is on no one's side. The realistic alternative is not the alluring fantasy of one state - concealing a mass of ill thought out contradictions - but, more likely, perpetual conflict. If this is our destiny, we can at least be certain of near-universal agreement on one point - it was all the fault of someone else.
Imagine we were suddenly struck by a previously unknown virus that disabled our capacity to blame others. No matter how hard we tried to point the finger elsewhere, this strange bug would stubbornly force us to reflect on our own deficiencies and misconceptions and on how to overcome them.

No More Blaming Others

Take the myth of Barak's "generous offer" (Camp David, 2000) and the paralytic effect that the mantra "we offered them everything and they rejected everything" had on the peace process and in particular on Israeli peace activists who, without irony, blamed the occupied Palestinians for having let them down. Imagine, as the infection took hold, that it dawned on the Israeli people that it was they who in fact had looked the gift-horse in the mouth - that their leaders had scorned the very "generous offer" for which the nation had been yearning for decades: a Palestinian pledge to recognize the Jewish state within the 1967 borders with agreed, equitable territorial adjustments; an offer for Israel to keep all post-1967 Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem plus a few others elsewhere in the West Bank; for it to assume sovereignty over the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter in the context of an open city of Jerusalem, to be recognized as the capital of both states; and, to top it off, for the Palestinian state to act implicitly as the principal vehicle for Israel's integration into the wider region, which previously had isolated and boycotted it.
Then imagine the impact on the mood in the region of a public Israeli declaration affirming a readiness to negotiate on the above basis, in principle to withdraw from the vast bulk of the territories captured in 1967 in favor of a genuinely independent, properly contiguous Palestinian state and to dismantle all settlements in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip not included in the equitable land swap. As they would not be starting from scratch - we know by now the contours of a final agreement - negotiations could proceed to a conclusion quite quickly.
The Clinton parameters (2000), refined at Taba (2001), pointed the way. The Nusseibeh-Ayalon joint statement (2002) has summarized the key principles and the unofficial Geneva accord (2003), led by the Taba negotiators Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, has elaborated what a final peace treaty between the two parties might look like. At the regional level, the Saudi Initiative, endorsed at the Arab League Beirut Summit (2002), with Palestinian blessing, has held out the prospect of comprehensive peace and normalization of relations in exchange for comprehensive withdrawal.
What then is holding up peace now? On the Israeli side, primarily an ideologically driven government that still clings to the illusion that it can enjoy the fruits of peace while hanging on to the spoils of war. We should not be fooled by Sharon's recent Gaza "disengagement" plan into fantasizing that he (or maybe later Netanyahu) is poised to do a "De Gaulle." Even assuming it proceeds, his principal purpose - as ever - is to consolidate Israel's hold over the greater prize of the West Bank, just as it was a key consideration for his Likud predecessor Menachem Begin some 25 years earlier when he agreed to a full withdrawal from Sinai as part of the peace deal with Egypt.
There is no avoiding the conclusion that without "regime change" in Israel - or decisive international intervention (or both) - there will be no serious progress, certainly beyond the limited moves in Gaza. So either we must pray that the Israeli electorate does us all a favor when the time comes or hope that the international community finally faces up to the full weight of its responsibilities.

The Palestinians Too

I shall return to this last point. Meanwhile, imagine that the Palestinian leadership was forced by the same curious bug to critically examine its strategy and indeed to question whether it really had a coherent strategy at all. Was one even possible, it might ask itself, while it held - or appeared to hold - to the plainly incompatible policy goals of two states for two peoples and the full exercise of the Palestinian right of return to what became Israel? What basic message did it hope to convey to the rest of the world: that the Palestinian people were predominantly dispossessed refugees yearning to return to their (mostly extinct) original homes and villages (1948 UN General Assembly Resolution 194 / 1967 Security Council Resolution 242) or that they were a nation-in-waiting seeking self-determination and statehood within its traditional homeland (1988 PNC Algiers Congress / 2002 Security Council Resolution 1397)? What did the Palestinian refugees themselves - often left out in the cold - feel about all this?
These may be complex questions without simple answers, but for as long as the apparent policy ambiguities are not fully and explicitly resolved, they surely will be fodder to an Israeli government dedicated to projecting the true Palestinian goal as Israel's liquidation. The official aim of the PLO and PA (Palestinian Authority) is indeed two sovereign states living harmoniously side by side, but why has this message failed to come across convincingly, even to would-be sympathizers in the dormant Israeli peace camp - a vital prospective partner ready to be re-mobilized and potentially to make common cause with an essentially nonviolent campaign of civil resistance to the occupation? Despite its very difficult circumstances, might not a self-critical Palestinian leadership conclude that it was time to embark on an energetic campaign to persuade Israeli - and international - public opinion of the sincerity of Palestinian intentions and seek actively to recruit it to its cause?
Imagine next that Hamas was suddenly confronted with its own contradictions. What, its leaders might ask themselves, has a strategy of indiscriminate violence actually achieved in the face of a militarily far stronger enemy with the means and resolve to deliver powerful retribution? Even if the "martyr operations" had helped persuade many Israelis that the occupation must end, haven't they simultaneously exacerbated their security anxieties and made a genuine withdrawal less likely? What effect have these actions had on Palestinian cohesion and popular participation in resistance activities, compared with the essentially non-violent first intifada? How, furthermore, may the claim that the battle is with Zionists and not Jews be reconciled with a charter that bristles with classical anti-Semitic imagery of the crudest type? Battered and bruised from recent assassinations, and bereft of international sympathy, the organization - and the Islamic Jihad group - might conclude that, if ever it wanted to be considered a player in future peace moves, there were plenty of practical options for it to contemplate other than sending in further suicidal "suicide bombers."

Regional Responsibility

At the regional level, imagine that the Arab states that endorsed the Saudi Initiative more than two years ago, reflected on whether it was essentially a public relations exercise or a serious peace move. If the latter, why has the declaration not been followed up with a concerted effort to convince international opinion of the earnestness of the peace and normalization pledges? Why has there been no sustained campaign pitched at the Israeli government and, more importantly, over its head at the Israeli people - as Sadat had controversially but successfully done in the past to demonstrate the authenticity of his peace proposal? Why, instead, the continuing official rhetoric and propaganda hostile to Jews as a people, to Judaism as a religion and to Israel per se? Why still the muddle and deception of ambivalence?
Imagine that civil society in Arab countries reassessed whether shunning all contact with Israeli civil society was the most productive way of delivering support for the Palestinian cause and peace in the region.

World Jewry and other Passionate Devotees

Imagine that Jewish community leaders and activists around the world woke up to the realization that the Israel they cherished as a needy charitable cause and as a proud nation reborn from the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust had metamorphosed into a militarily powerful state that for nearly four decades has been oppressively occupying the land and lives of another degraded people whose original felony was to be in the way of the Zionist enterprise. Instead of knee-jerk solidarity with every Israeli policy and action, however outrageous, imagine they applied the same rational and human rights standards to Israeli conduct as they often prided themselves as favoring elsewhere and imagine that they consistently used their influence with Israeli governments to these ends.
Imagine, too, that other passionate devotees around the world to the Israeli or Palestinian causes rose above their partisan tendencies to see the bigger picture and campaign within their own countries, separately or together, for a fair and equitable solution to the conflict based on two viable states.
In sum, imagine the mysterious virus worked its magic - and no one was making excuses. It would be a great advance, not to be underestimated. But it would not be enough to break the deadlock on the ground. For this, we need a coherent plan that is conceptually sound, addresses the major issues head on, draws on the negotiations of recent years, reflects the resultant international consensus and - most importantly - learns from the failings and does not repeat the mistakes of previous peace plans from the Oslo Accords to the Quartet's Road Map.

Three Key Lessons

One key lesson to be drawn from these experiences is that, if ever it were true, the parties today are unable - or unwilling - to solve the problems themselves and that progress depends crucially on decisive international intervention. A second is that "incremental progress" in this context is a contradiction in terms as it is an open invitation to militant factions on both sides to sabotage a process and an outcome they vehemently oppose. A third - vital - conclusion is that leaving the termination of the Israeli occupation to the end of the process, while attempting to deal with other problems first, is a logical fallacy, as it is the occupation that is the root of most of the problems. The key is to find a way of terminating the occupation toward the beginning of the process. Otherwise, the plan will be sure to come apart once more, with fingers of blame being pointed all around.
This presents two major challenges. One is to reconcile a swift and authentic end to the Israeli occupation - a basic demand not just of the Palestinians but also supported by a clear majority of Israelis - with the visceral Israeli fear of relinquishing the territories to the Palestinians themselves, particularly to Arafat or Hamas. The other major challenge is to build a stable Palestinian state able to meet the needs of its people and willing to resolve outstanding problems with its Israeli neighbor.

A Temporary International Protectorate: The Only Realistic Way

The only logical way of meeting these diverse needs is for the territories to be handed over to a third party as a transitional measure. What is proposed is that a temporary international protectorate, under Security Council authority, assumes formal legal jurisdiction over the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the Israeli occupation authority. Mindful of the Iraq experience, this would preferably be at the invitation of the Palestinian Authority (ideally, it would be at the invitation of the Israeli government too!). If the aim is to defuse and then end the conflict, this is a more fitting option by far than an unsightly and oppressive separation barrier snaking through the West Bank, even if the latter provides a degree of short-term protection to some Israelis.
On pragmatic grounds and on an interim basis, it is envisaged that the protectorate would in effect delegate back, in part or in full, de facto authority over designated areas of territory or program to either the Israeli occupation authority or the PA, pending final-status negotiations. In practical terms, this would entail a prompt end to the Israeli occupation in the bulk of the territories, with phased withdrawals in remaining areas according to an agreed timetable but without prejudice to the final territorial arrangement.
The most urgent task of the protectorate, in conjunction with local forces, would be its peace enforcement role - acting vigorously against further mutual slaughter and other acts of violence or terror. The more vital longer-term task would be in the political arena, where it would have a time-limited political mandate (maybe three to five years), at the end of which it would give way to an independent, democratic Palestinian state in the context of a peace agreement.
To this end, the protectorate would assist the Palestinians in restoring basic services, reviving civil society and rebuilding national institutions. It would help train security and civil personnel, monitor elections, facilitate and mediate final-status negotiations, initiate and supervise the rehabilitation of incoming willing refugees to the nascent Palestinian state, and generally coordinate an array of internationally sponsored projects that the drive toward independence is likely to generate.

Three Tiers

The protectorate would rest on three tiers. The upper tier would confer international legitimacy and legality on the protectorate and its scope of authority through a UN Security Council resolution, which, based on the negotiations of recent years, would chart the broad parameters of a projected final settlement. The resolution would designate, as the second tier, a "mandate authority" to oversee the work of the protectorate. A likely candidate would be the "Quartet" of the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN, possibly expanded to include other appropriate powers.
The third tier, the protectorate administration, would be divided between the civil and security tasks. Responsibility for security could fall to a "coalition of the willing and acceptable" - requiring the assent of both the Palestinians and the Israelis - which may include troops from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, possibly Turkey, Egypt, Jordan or others. It is hard to imagine this working without the U.S. playing a prominent role although - in light of its current over-stretched and controversial commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere - this could be confined largely to the command levels. One proponent, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, has suggested designating the security task to NATO.
It may be expected that this proposal would meet vehement opposition from the current Israeli government and that considerable international pressure would be needed to win its compliance. But this would be true for any serious proposal. What matters is that the focus of any pressure relates to the endgame, not to side issues or procedural questions.

Implications for Israelis and Palestinians

The repercussions for Israeli society of an end to a 37-year occupation of the land and lives of a neighboring people and the return to Israel of large numbers of settlers, some of them militant and bitter, would inevitably be mixed and profound. Naturally, there would be dislocations. But the continuation of the occupation is causing severe internal rifts and intense economic distress. Of course, these would be a lot worse without the current huge U.S. annual subventions - something not to be taken for granted for the future.
In some Palestinian circles, the proposal may be regarded initially as yet another device for delaying independence. But in reality, far from statehood lurking around the corner, the drift is in the opposite direction. The Palestinians of the Occupied Territories today are a nation incarcerated. The virtual end of the Israeli occupation and the dismantling of the entire paraphernalia of repression, coupled with a robust international security presence and the active participation of the Palestinians in building their future state are all reasons to suppose there would be a progressive reduction in the level of violence. The Palestinians would at last have a tangible stake and a restored hope in the future. It would mean a new start, commencing the day the protectorate takes over.

The George Bush Factor

A major drawback is that George Bush has neither the vision of an Eisenhower nor the grasp of a Clinton. Again, hope may be pinned on the future good sense of an electorate to return a more cerebral administration at the appointed hour. For its part, the EU - Israel's biggest trading partner and the largest non-Arab provider of direct aid to the PA - could be considerably more assertive, along with other powers, in laying the political and practical groundwork. It is a matter of intelligent self-interest and determined political will.
In sum, there is a solution, waiting to be grasped. But time is precious. We cannot rely on governments to act wisely spontaneously, so it is important that a constituency of support be built among ordinary citizens around the world to agitate nationally and globally in favor of a decisive international role along the lines outlined here to end this pernicious conflict before it becomes irresolvable.
Or we could imagine that none of the above happens. The abyss beckons.
That doesn't bear imagining.