It is a cliche. Every time a worthy mediator, in this case Secretary of State John Kerry, sets about ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, people say that the clock hand has reached "a minute to midnight," meaning that disaster will follow if the parties fail to agree.
By Kerry’s timetable, the chimes will ring out dolefully at the end of this month. He may find a last-minute rewinding ploy to keep both sides mumbling a bit longer, but there is scant chance, even with that extension, of a two-state deal getting done. Kerry has tried his heroic best, but this round of peacemaking is fizzling out.
Disaster will not immediately follow. As things stand, Israel is not under threat, despite its understandable aversion to the prospect of other states in the Middle East, such as Iran, matching it with nuclear weapons. Israel is a prosperous democracy in a region of chaos and bloodshed. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is unchallenged. The Palestinians demanding a state are weak, divided and quiescent. Morose as they are, few favor a return to suicide bombing.
Yet Israel cannot afford to be complacent in the longer run, because this stalemate poses a real threat if the country is to preserve its essence as both Jewish and democratic.
It cannot stay both, if it indefinitely controls the Palestinian territories and their people while denying them full rights under Israeli law, including the vote. If the Palestinians were enfranchised, though, demography suggests that a Greater Israel between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including Gaza, no longer would be predominantly Jewish. Israel must give the Palestinians a proper state of their own if it is to remain a Jewish democracy.
Netanyahu knows this. Most of his own Likud party and much of his coalition still roundly reject the two-state idea, though, and he is reluctant to face them down. This time he has added a clutch of extra demands for which his predecessors, notably Prime Minister Ehud Barack at Camp David in 2000 and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem in 2008, saw no need, addressing such issues as boundaries, Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, which many in Likud now want to annex. He has let Jewish settlements on the West Bank expand as fast as ever, and he says that, before negotiations can proceed, the Palestinians must first acknowledge Israel as a specifically Jewish state.
The Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, says that he cannot submit to such demands as a precondition. He would be ditched by his own people if he were to cast Israel’s Arabs, who are a fifth of Israeli citizens, into what they see as a second-class status and if he disavowed the Palestinians’ claimed "right of return" to Israel proper. The fact that the Palestinians will have to yield on these points in the final stage of any deal only adds, like the Israeli demands, to a sense of bluster.
In an ideal world Netanyahu, a clever populist, would emulate the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by abandoning his party’s right wing and the rejectionists within his coalition in order to forge a new ruling coalition genuinely committed to the two-state option, which the Knesset arithmetic would let him do. Abbas would step down in favor of a more dynamic leader, such as Marwan Barghouti, currently imprisoned in an Israeli jail for murder after helping organize a bloody uprising. That fact, though, might give him the clout to drag the Palestinians into making painful but game-changing concessions.
Instead, both sides are embarking on a blame game. Neither will win. The Palestinians are still stateless, and their prospective state is getting smaller. The Israelis face not only the growing opprobrium of the outside world, boycotts and all, but also the prospect of missing another opportunity to ensure the survival of a country that is both democratic and Jewish.