If Israel and the Palestinians cannot make peace with each other, what should the United States and the rest of the world do? Merely offering to mediate may not be enough.
The descent into savage violence in recent weeks is not just another episode in a long -running dispute; it is a turn toward outright war between two commingled societies. With the suicide bombings (actually, suicide-homicide bombings), the Palestinians have crossed a moral threshold; nothing is forbidden to them. The Israeli military response has been understandable, but the logic underlying it is ultimately untenable: It is a delusion to believe that by temporarily occupying Palestinian areas, the army can root out the "terrorist infrastructure." The required explosives are impossible to control, and there is no shortage of volunteers willing to blow themselves up. Rather than quelling resistance, the military occupation has only solidified it.
Every signal points to a continued spiral of vengeance. The Israelis and Palestinians are at the edge of hell, and neither is about to back off. Even if negotiators arrange a cease-fire, the combatants' irreconcilable positions -- not to mention their irreconcilable memories -- make more warfare overwhelmingly likely.
At the same time, an air of unreality hangs about the belated American pleas to Arafat and Sharon. We ask Arafat to denounce terrorism as if his own movement were not responsible for much of it, and we ask Sharon to return to a negotiating process that he has long opposed and that has no chance of succeeding as long as he is in power. Each side lacks a credible bargaining partner.
The current leaders are not the only obstacle, or even the primary one. The deeper problem is that no foreseeable leadership on either side is likely to have the will or the capacity to make the decisions that realistically would be necessary to end the conflict.
If two states -- one Jewish, one Palestinian -- are some day to live peacefully side by side, Israel is going to have to cede the Palestinians nearly all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including much territory where there are now Israeli settlements. And the Palestinians, in recognizing Israel's right to exist, are going to have to accept that they cannot enjoy a right of return. But there is no prospect of an Israeli leader who could surrender the settlements or of a Palestinian leader who could surrender the claims of the refugees -- unless, that is, it was clear that an overwhelming concert of international powers forced the terms upon them.
That is why the time may be coming when outside parties, inevitably led by the United States, will have to take a stronger hand in resolving the conflict. By that I mean establishing the terms of a settlement, pressuring both sides to accept it, and policing it through an international force.
The general outlines of such a resolution are not difficult to imagine. Among the principal provisions would be 1) the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza; 2) the exchange of land between Israel and Palestine to thicken Israel's otherwise perilously thin "waist"; 3) Palestinian recognition of the borders so established along with Israel's right to exist, as a condition of Palestinian statehood; 4) the evacuation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza that now divide otherwise contiguous Palestinian territory; and 5) the establishment of an externally controlled military force to police the separation of the two societies and of a permanent international council to arbitrate disputes.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simply too dangerous to the world to be left to the two immediate parties. Continued escalation of violence poses the risk of a general war in the Mideast. It threatens to destabilize the more moderate governments in the region, to stoke anti-Semitism throughout the world, and to impede our own efforts to stop terrorism. The level of distrust and venom between the Israelis and Palestinians is now so great that they cannot extricate themselves from the death spiral they are in. Rather than let that spiral engulf other countries, the United States ought to create the kind of coalition that can achieve for the combatants what they cannot achieve on their own: a peaceful disentanglement and divorce.