To their own devices

January 11, 2004

IN A YEAR, the dream of an independent Palestinian state was to be realized under the U.S.-sponsored "road map" to peace. But the peace process is in shambles, and in the absence of any dialogue on resolving the present stalemate, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are advancing their own agendas. Each antagonizes the other, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon vowing to physically and diplomatically "disengage" from the Palestinians, and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia proposing one state for two peoples. Both threats reflect the deep divide that exists in this conflict.

The Bush administration seems intent on not getting between the two sides in an election year, which leaves them to their own devices. With Washington ignoring Mr. Sharon's calls to disengage from Palestinians, Mr. Qureia raised the "one-state solution" last week. That would have Palestinians and Israelis living in one democratic country. The idea is anathema to Israelis, whose Jewish state would be swallowed up by an ever-increasing Palestinian population.

Today, Israeli Jews total about 5.5 million, compared with 4.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Arab citizens of Israel. The split would shift in the Palestinians' favor by 2020. The one-state proposal has no political chance of success given U.S. support of a two-state solution. But Mr. Qureia's discussion of it reflects the desperation of Palestinians, who see their hopes of an independent state undermined by an inability to police militant organizations and advance their end of U.S.-backed peace initiatives.

About the only positive development as the conflict moves into its fourth year is a report from Israel's security service that shows the number of Israeli victims of Palestinian violence declined by half last year, compared with 2002. (Media reports also indicate a 50 percent decline in the number of Palestinians killed.) Israel attributed the decline to its crackdown on Palestinian militant groups.

But we can't forget that 2003 also was the year that Palestinian militants agreed to a cease-fire - a pact brought about not by threats and demands, but by dialogue. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian can afford to abandon the only path that matters: a peaceful solution hammered out by two negotiating partners.

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