Negotiations for a final settlement between Palestinians and Israelis are now officially under way. They were started with speeches by the Israeli foreign minister, David Levy, and subsequent statements by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, especially in the Jewish settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, which he declared would remain a part of Israel, and in a programmatic speech by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). Thus, the two sides have presented their principled positions regarding the complex issues of the permanent settlement. According to the latest Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, the two sides are, consequently, expected to reach a solution to all final-status issues within one year. Is this workable? Or are we to be faced with agreements like those we have experienced during the last years? And, finally, in light of the existing situation, what are the solutions that can be viewed as possible? Before embarking on any speculation, it is worthwhile to take stock of the Palestinian and Israeli positions regarding a permanent settlement as proclaimed in the respective above-mentioned speeches.

The Palestinian Position

• The implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the rest of the relevant international resolutions, and the application of the principle reached in Madrid [1991] of "land for peace" (all the land, from a Palestinian point of view).
• The establishment alongside Israel of an independent Palestinian state on all the Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, i.e., within the June 4, 1967, borders.
• Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine.
• The delineation of borders between the State of Palestine and the State of Israel based on the above.
• The return of Palestine refugees or compensation, in accordance with UN resolutions, of those who so desire.
• The dismantlement of Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land after the 1967 Israeli occupation of these lands, as these settlements are considered illegal and an obstacle to peace.
• Access to an equitable share of water.

The Israeli Position

• A theoretical recognition of international resolutions (at most, 242 and 338), but without readiness for the implementation or even reference to these resolutions in Israel's official political discourse.
• The Israeli position does not object, in principle, to the concept of a Palestinian state (in line with the resolutions of the Labor party), but this state should be demilitarized and connected to Israel by a series of agreements constricting the exercise of its sovereignty, its economic ties and its regional alliances: an "independent" state under the umbrella of total Israeli security supervision and control.
• "United Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel." Israel will, however, be ready to share administrative matters, and to recognize certain Palestinian symbols in the city and surrounding areas, but Israeli sovereignty over the city will remain total.
• There will be no return of Palestinian refugees within the borders of the State of Israel. A limited number of refugees will be allowed to return to the Palestinian National Authority areas conditional upon Israeli approval. There is no place in Israeli policy for the concept of compensation, only for help in the resettlement of refugees, inside Palestine or in the surrounding countries of the Diaspora.
• There will be no return to the June 1967 borders. Extensive land areas of the West Bank will be annexed, including parts of the Jordan Valley; major settlement blocs like Gush Etzion, Ariel and the areas surrounding Qalqiliya; and Greater Jerusalem.
• Major settlements blocs will not be removed, but placed under Israeli sovereignty and connected to Israel by safe passages, bypassing Palestinian areas. Israel will consider dismantling settlements that are small, dispersed and isolated.
• Israel will continue controlling the lion's share of the water, as it considers it has legitimate right to the aquifers in the West Bank, first as a natural extension to it and second, because Jewish settlements are built over them.
These are the main points that the Palestinian and Israeli sides will place on the negotiating table during the coming period, in an attempt to reach a common agenda as stipulated by the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement. No deep analysis is needed in this context for us to envisage the impossibility of reaching compromises on the issues mentioned above, either because they are much too difficult to solve, or because they conflict with each side's adopted strategies, or for a lack of political courage to take sensitive and existential decisions.
Clearly, Israel will proceed in its policy of settlement expansion (a function of Israeli interests and the requirements of a government coalition), especially those settlements that fall within the major blocs. It will also go on building bypass roads, turning the settlement blocs into points of attraction for further settlers, especially new immigrants. It will also consolidate its hegemony over Arab East Jerusalem through an increased deployment of Israeli police in the various quarters of the city (as is the case now in the Old City), bringing to the fore the question of the Arab demographic bomb and the necessity to "reestablish the demographic balance in the city." The object is to ensure a Jewish majority of more than 70 percent in the eastern part of the city (this is the concerted effort of Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem, and Haim Ramon, minister for Jerusalem). As a consequence there will be increased pressure on the Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem to leave and a stepped-up attempt to lure Israelis to the city.
The agreement signed in Sharm el-Sheikh stipulates the two sides reach a common agenda on permanent-status issues before the completion of implementation. As this seems to be an impossible proposition, the implementation of the Wye River Memorandum will be deadlocked. Consequently, after some more land and powers will have reverted to the Palestinians, one can foresee the scenario of an impasse similar to the one under Netanyahu's rule, giving the Israeli side more time for the expansion of settlements and the creation of facts in many final-status related issues.
The more time passes, the more complications arise, making a permanent solution nearly impossible. If we agree that both sides are now seeking separation (at least this is what emerges from their declared positions), it is clear that a conflict exists between this strategy [of separation] and what is actually taking place and will take place on the ground.
I sometimes wonder whether the Israelis are really aware of what they are doing, or do events in Israel take place without planning, subject only to coalition considerations or the political survival of one individual or group? If the Palestinian leadership takes note of this enigma, will it still cling to the Oslo strategy, which it understood would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian entity/state alongside the State of Israel? Directly after the signing of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, Barak foresaw an impasse and proceeded to propose partial solutions similar to Wye River, but lacking a conclusion (i.e., a succession of interim periods in each of which the Palestinians are given a few more meters of land, but much less than the land area over which Jewish settlements will expand within the same time period). We will then have another Sharm el-Sheikh agreement that will lead to another dead-end for the thousandth time. Following the rules of this game will become impossible from a Palestinian perspective, because this is a course that will neither lead to an independent Palestinian state and the retrieval of Palestinian soil, nor will it meet the minimum level of the Palestinian political program in the shadow of an Israeli policy that daily dictates a reality that is not easily reversible. The most that one can achieve will be a Palestinian administration of civil affairs (internal security, education, health, communication, etc.), as is the case at present, but with the expansion of some powers and of the geographical area in which to exercise those powers.
In point of fact, we Palestinians are living today in what can be construed as a binational state, but under the total hegemony of one people: the Israeli. We leave the country with a permit or with Israeli permission (this includes ministers in the Palestinian government). Theoretically, we do not leave our cities and towns without Israeli permission. Even after the opening of the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, the passage remains under Israeli control; some of us will pass through the passage, but again with Israeli permission. We neither export nor do we import without the permission of Israel, etc. We live under rules that Israel has decreed should remain in place. And what is more aggravating is that the characterization of occupation has started to dissipate, giving further credence to my earlier claim that what we are experiencing now is the beginning of binationalism.
Both sides will have to consider carefully where we are headed if a settlement is not reached within a short period, not exceeding five years, and culminating in a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Israel has to decide, now and before it is too late, whether it wants to live on within a binational state on equal terms with Palestinians (who now constitute around 40 percent of the total population), or within an apartheid system. The Palestinians, for their part, have to decide whether the slogan of an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 is now passé and that a radical change in strategy and political program is in order.