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A Two-State Solution May Have To Wait

In a kind of “exit interview” in the Sunday, November 16, edition of The New York Times, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summarizes her take on the Israel/Palestine conflict: “… There is a robust negotiating process, and they have made a lot of progress on how to get to a two-state solution…. On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, we will leave this in a much, much better place, agreement or no.”

Perhaps. Perhaps those who believe that a two-state solution is an idea whose time has gone are in a bad mood. Perhaps those who search for evidence of progress and find only thimbles-full are looking in the wrong places.

Or perhaps Rice knows things the rest of us don’t know and her assessment, based on that knowledge, is that there has been real progress. More likely, though, is that Rice, who this year has made eight trips to Israel, feels compelled to put the best face on her own nearly empty portfolio. The balance of her interview includes a significant number of similarly self-justifying (not to say aggrandizing) assessments.

The truth is that no one knows just where things stand at the moment — not Rice, not Ehud Olmert or Tzipi Livni, not Mahmoud Abbas, not Dennis Ross or Ehud Barak. Not this correspondent, either.

What we do know is that President-elect Obama is being pressed from many quarters to move quickly on the Israel/Palestine front. In communications both public and private, Obama is told that he “should” or, more often, that he “must,” act with dispatch to bring the chronic conflict to a constructive resolution. In particular, he is being urged to appoint a special envoy to transfuse the peace process, to demonstrate the depth of America’s concern.

It won’t happen, nor should it happen. There’s an old Yiddish bon mot: Men krikht nit mit a gezunt’n kop in a krank’n bet areyn — With a healthy head, you shouldn’t crawl into a sick bed. To assign a high-profile envoy in the early days of the new administration to an arena that has by now played host to a succession of envoys — remember Bob Strauss, Sol Linowitz, George Mitchell, George Tenet, Tony Zinni, Phil Habib, among many others — is to reach for fruit so rare and as yet so unripe as to ensure failure. Nor is there anyone in Obama’s entourage close enough to him to carry the presidential aura into the fray. (Vice President-elect Joe Biden might be an exception, but he will surely have his hands full, and then some.) The last thing a new administration needs is a false start in an early foray into foreign policy.

That’s so whether Livni or Bibi Netanyahu emerges as Israel’s next prime minister after the February 10, 2009, election. If it’s Netanyahu and he moves to scuttle the ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority, as he has threatened he may, the riot act can be read to him as compellingly by telephone as by a special envoy on site, or can be conveyed to him during his first visit to the White House after taking office, a visit that will surely come in the early weeks of his tenure. And if it’s Livni, there’s a different and more pliable agenda that might take productive priority. Why not dispatch an experienced diplomat for a very low-key exploration of the possibility of an agreement between Syria and Israel? There are, after all, good reasons to believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is interested, and an early success in that arena would have profound consequences for the Israel/Palestine conflict.

In the meantime, the region is not idling in neutral. There are, here and there, hints of reasonableness, even of progress. The constabulary of the Palestine Authority now manages law and order in Jenin and has begun to make its presence felt in Hebron and Nablus, too. This is the product of an elaborate international effort in which the United States and Jordan have played key roles. And none too soon: With every such advance on the West Bank, the advance of Hamas there is blunted.

And Israel may, at long last, actually be moving against the more than 100 illegal outposts that have been such a bone of contention, such a blight on Israel’s credibility. The removal of these settlements is by no means an imminent certainty, and the government’s recent statements of intent in this regard may prove as empty as earlier and similar statements have been. Moreover, the affected settlers have vowed resistance, and no one in Israel discounts their increasing radicalization.

Yet that radicalization has itself stirred the Israeli public, brought it to a level of impatience and even disgust that will applaud decisive action by the government to have done with this vexation.

That will leave intact the more serious debate, the one about the larger and established settlements, those that have been actively supported by a succession of governments. That debate will be wrenching, whenever it finally is joined.

An America that has established its gravitas in international affairs, that has, one hopes, facilitated a peace between Israel and Syria, will play an important catalytic part as such a debate unfolds. In the meantime, Obama’s plate is full to overflowing, and in the Middle East, there’s lower-hanging fruit to be picked.

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