AP Analysis: In Mideast, partial deal tantalizes

Wednesday - 3/20/2013, 3:22am EDT


JERUSALEM (AP) -- As the U.S. president prepares to reinsert himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his best hope may be to set aside grand hopes for a final agreement and make do with a partial deal.

An interim settlement would leave neither side with full satisfaction, and the Palestinians in particular strongly oppose it for fear that it will become permanent. But with gaps seemingly unbridgeable on the same key issues that have scuttled all previous peace efforts, a piecemeal approach may be just enough to yield a sovereign Palestinian state, albeit an imperfect one.

Barack Obama heads to the region Wednesday in a long-awaited trip whose agenda includes hopes of restarting negotiations. The White House has been careful to lower expectations, saying Obama will mainly listen and learn as he speaks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But U.S. officials confirm the idea of an interim agreement, while not their preference, has been under consideration. One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said new Secretary of State John Kerry "is looking for options on a way forward" and that an interim arrangement has been among several ideas being explored.

"The challenge of diplomacy is to try and find areas where progress can be made, and not always try and seek a complete solution when one is not in the cards at present," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. who has served as an informal adviser to Netanyahu.

Netanyahu's new government, which was inaugurated this week, includes key moderate partners that want movement on the Palestinian front and can bring down the government if they choose.

The Palestinians will be a hard sell. They want a state in all of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. From their perspective to suffice with that territory -- leaving Israel with over three-quarters of what was British-ruled Palestine until 1948 -- is compromise enough.

"If Israel was serious it would have offered a solution based on the two states, but Israel wants to annex Jerusalem and large parts of the West Bank by such an offer," said Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Previous peace talks under more dovish governments all broke down despite offers that Israelis think should have come close. No serious negotiations have taken place in the past four years, since Netanyahu returned to power.

Netanyahu opposes a full pullout from the West Bank because it is a strategic highland, and to many Jews it's their biblical heartland to boot. Complicating things are 300,000-odd Jewish settlers preventing a clean pullout.

He also chafes at giving up any of east Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed, expanded, and populated with another 200,000 Jews, declaring it an indivisible part of its capital -- an idea generallyl rejected by the world community and the Palestinians who also claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

East Jerusalem also contains the combustible Old City, walled home to sensitive Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites; giving it up would be excruciating for either side.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat speaks for many when he argues that Jerusalem can no longer be divided on practical grounds: the communities are too mixed and any effort to draw a border would yield a map so bizarre as to defy implementation. Sharing control seems even more far-fetched; free entry for Palestinians from the adjoining West Bank into a shared city would suggest potential free further passage to the rest of Israel -- yet Israel is determined to keep most Palestinians out as a security threat.

Further clouding the picture, the Palestinians demand the "right of return" of millions of refugees and descendants, whose families lost properties in what is now Israel. Israel rejects this out of hand, saying a mass influx would spell the end of the country.

And in a final complication, Hamas militants have controlled the coastal Gaza Strip since overrunning Abbas' forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew troops and settlers from there unilaterally. The Islamic militant group rejects peace with Israel, and efforts to reconcile with Abbas' rival government in the West Bank have repeatedly failed.

The landscape seems hopeless. But time is also working against both sides in different ways.

For Israel, a failure to divide the Holy Land into two states seems to be national suicide since the fast-growing Arab population in the area could soon outnumber Jews. If Gaza is included in the equation parity at about 6 million each looms even today; Palestinians argue that Gaza remains occupied because Israel controls its sea access and airspace and blockades most of its land border. Most Israelis, including the hard-line Netanyahu, acknowledge the status quo endangers Israel as a democracy with a solid Jewish majority.