Have MidEast talks failure killed two-state goal?

After 20 years of talks, the two sides are still far apart

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Twenty years ago, when the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were fresh and young, millions from both sides thought a peace agreement, at long last, was going to make their lives much better.

It didn't happen. Twenty years of off-on talks, punctuated by violence, have not worked.

In many ways, Israelis and Palestinians are further apart than they were when the peace process started.

For two decades now the world's favourite peace plan has been the 'two state solution'.

It assumes that the conflict is about territory. Two sides went to war over a single piece of land, and the idea is that if they can agree to split it they have a chance of living in peace as neighbours.

But negotiators, helped by a variety of foreigners, have been trying for twenty years, and they have not made a deal.

'Broken record'

Israelis and Palestinians have heard the arguments so often, and seen so many failures, that they have stopped listening.

One man summed it up. "While I think that we want peace, the other side wants peace, it just sounds like a broken record that's been scratched and is going around and around."

It so happened that he was an Israeli, wearing the knitted skull cap of the religious Zionists who are the backbone of the settler movement. But the same thing could have been said by almost anyone on either side.

On a sunny Jerusalem morning I met two 30-something men, a Palestinian called Sulaiman Khatib and an Israeli called Avner Wishnitzer.

Sulaiman Khatib (left) and Avner Wishnitzer Peace activists Sulaiman Khatib (left) and Avner Wishnitzer used to fight on opposite sides of the conflict

They are peace activists, a species common in the 1990s at the height of the peace process, but hard to spot these days.

They are part of Combatants for Peace, a group that brings together former fighters.

Avner was in Sayeret Matkal, Israel's elite special forces unit. Sulaiman was sentenced to 15 years in an Israeli jail when he was 15 years old for attacking Israeli soldiers.

"If the solution is two states," Sulaiman said, "you need to give up part of your dreams and that's the truth. You have to meet in the middle somewhere, no side will get everything they want".

Start Quote

We are running out of time. We're running out of possibilities... If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance”

End Quote John Kerry US secretary of state

Avner said he tried to appeal to mainstream Israelis. He said their fears were real.

"The dangers are real. We have to convince people, Israelis, that Palestinians - most of them, not all of them - but most of them do not want to throw us into the sea."

It was good to see two men who once could have killed each other sitting down as friends. But I could have done the same interview 20 years ago.

In the 1990s some Israelis and Palestinians had come to the same conclusions. But today most Israelis and Palestinians still do not trust the other side.

Out of time?

Before the start of the talks that were meant to have ended, presumably in success, on Monday of this week, the US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Israelis that they might not get another opportunity.

In a news conference in Tel Aviv on 24 May last year, he said: "We are running out of time. We're running out of possibilities...If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance."

Mr Kerry worked very hard, and so did all the negotiators. The secretary of state had 34 meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and almost twice as many with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu according to the New York Times.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 2 January 2014 John Kerry had hoped to broker a peace deal when he brought the two sides back together last year

The peace process has brought ideas that were once highly controversial into the mainstream, like the idea of a Palestinian state that Israel and the Americans once rejected. But the negotiators have not been able to take the final steps.

Both sides say they want peace, and there is no reason to doubt them. But they can't agree what peace looks like, what would happen in Jerusalem, where the borders would be, the future of Israeli settlers and Palestinian refugees, and so on.

A final deal would need both leaders to persuade their people that big sacrifices are necessary, and will in time improve their lives. It hasn't happened, and they have had plenty of opportunities.

Perhaps the time has come to recognise that there is not going to be a two-state solution.

Demographic time-bomb?

It is logical, and has been worked out innumerable times on paper. But the two sides cannot bear to abandon cherished beliefs and ideas. Making it happen has been impossible, but other visions of the future do not come any easier.

Mr Netanyahu seems to believe that Israel can manage the conflict, and preserve his government. Settlement building in the occupied territories continues, which protects him on the right.

President Abbas, exploiting the enhanced position of the Palestinians at the UN, has signed up to a number of international organisations and is likely to join more.

Senior Hamas and Fatah officials after signing a reconciliation agreement in Gaza on 23 April 2014 Israel suspended peace talks with the Palestinians in response to Fatah's unity agreement with Hamas

Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to apologise, in effect, for remarks he made saying that Israel risked becoming an apartheid state if it cannot make a deal with the Palestinians.

The argument is that if Palestinians do not have their own state, they will have to be inside Israel.

If they were given the vote, their birth rate means they would soon be able to outvote Jews.

If they were not given the vote, Israel would be like the old South Africa.

Many Palestinians believe that their best strategy is to persuade the rest of the world that Israel should be isolated. They want it to be compared to apartheid South Africa.

The chances are there will be more peace talks. They have been declared dead many times and have always, just about, come back to life.

But the tension is rising again. And the past 20 years have also shown that the absence of negotiations often leads to violence.

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