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Israelis, Palestinians ponder alternatives

Stalled talks push sides to find ways to Mideast peace

‘I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse,' Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. ‘I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse,' Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
By Dan Perry and Karin Laub
Associated Press / October 22, 2010

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JERUSALEM — With peace talks stalled, Israelis and Palestinians are quietly — and separately — looking for alternatives.

The scenarios range from the Palestinians going around Israel to seek world recognition for an independent state to Israel pushing for a scaled-down agreement that sidesteps the toughest issues, like sharing Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

The thinking is that few people believe a full peace deal within a year is achievable. And the impasse that has emerged over settlement construction has brought a difficult question to the surface: If the United States cannot compel Israel to extend a settlement freeze for a few months, how can the United States persuade Israel to make wrenching decisions over control of Jerusalem?

Both sides say their first choice is still a full agreement, and the Obama administration is clinging to the hope that the peace talks will succeed.

But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged in a speech to Palestinian-Americans on Wednesday that it’s a struggle.

“I cannot stand here tonight and tell you there is some magic formula that I have discovered that will break through the current impasse,’’ she said.

Palestinians say the current situation cannot drag on indefinitely: They have a measure of self-rule in the main cities of the West Bank, but Israel controls the land in between and remains ultimately in charge, controlling the Palestinians through a complex permit system. The Gaza Strip, meanwhile, has essentially broken off — a statelet run by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rejects the peace talks.

Palestinian officials said they don’t expect the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to take drastic action before the year set aside for negotiations is up in September 2011. Abbas, however, is starting to prepare for other options, and on Wednesday, more than a dozen senior Palestinian officials met for the first time — at the president’s request — to discuss ideas.

The main alternative, according to officials, is to seek UN Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

While such validation would not immediately change the situation on the ground, it could boost Palestinian leverage vis-à-vis Israel. International recognition of Palestine’s borders could also further isolate Israel and limit the Jewish state’s diplomatic and military options.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the Palestinians would first seek recognition from the United States.

The Palestinians know that may be difficult to obtain but hope that by next fall, they will have won sufficient international support to make the idea palatable, should the need arise. At that time, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, will have completed his ambitious two-year plan to build the institutions of a Palestinian state.

Achievements on the ground “will contribute to convincing the international community to take a more active role in allowing for the independent Palestinian state by then,’’ said Ghassan Khatib, government spokesman.

Israel would surely oppose such a unilateral Palestinian move. But among many Israelis as well, skepticism about peace talks is accompanied by a gnawing sense that something must change: The occupation is ruining the country’s reputation, and there’s concern that without a decisive break from the West Bank, Israel will become, in effect, a binational state with a dwindling Jewish majority.

Concerns about Israel’s future have driven even right-wing parties once opposed to territorial concessions toward more moderate positions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself endorsed — albeit grudgingly — the idea of a Palestinian state in 2009, and agreed to the peace effort President Obama launched last month.

But the talks stalled within weeks, when Israel refused to extend a 10-month freeze on new settlement construction. And Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon recently said not one member of the key group of seven Cabinet ministers — which includes Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and himself — believes a full peace treaty is achievable within a year.

Talk of scaling back expectations is coming from opposite corners of the political map. Both Yossi Beilin, a prominent dove, and Gideon Saar, the education minister and a hard-liner from Netanyahu’s Likud, have suggested that this might be the only way to move forward.

Under this idea, Israel would no longer seek an “end of conflict’’ declaration from the Palestinians — which would presumably lower the price of a deal.

The Palestinians would get a state in most of the West Bank, with international safeguards about a future deal, but decisions on Jerusalem and refugees would be put off.

The Palestinians adamantly reject such a scenario, fearing that they would lose any further leverage and end up with a ministate. But Beilin believes that they can be convinced that it is simply the only way to achieve statehood.

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