EVERY AMERICAN President since Truman had to deal with the Israeli-Arab conflict. Now that the transition from the Bush to the Obama presidency is underway, Washington must recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in a race against time.
The concept of a negotiated two-state solution - a Jewish state of Israel living in peace and security alongside an independent, economically viable Palestinian state - that has been widely accepted for more than 15 years is disappearing before our eyes.
More and more people in our region are talking seriously about three other options: one-state, three-state, or a Jordan solution. But these are not solutions at all. Rather, they are prescriptions for intensified conflict and violence in the Middle East or the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
The one-state solution would entail granting equal voting rights to everyone living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Since Jews would then become a clear minority within a relatively short period, this scenario would mark the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The resulting binational state could only be a Jewish one if Jews ruled as a minority, much like apartheid-South Africa. And Israel would then be condemned and ostracized by the international community, including many Americans, as South Africa was.
The three-state solution envisions Israel, the West Bank, which is governed by the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza, now ruled by Hamas, as separate states. The Palestinians would never accept such a plan. Historically they are one people and cannot be divided artificially. The Hamas factions in the West Bank would be literally up in arms, creating additional military threats to Israel. Furthermore, are Israel, moderate Arab states and the West prepared to recognize the state of Gaza with an extremist Hamas government?
Third is the growing school of thought among some Israelis that the only solution to the Palestinian problem is through Jordan. Nearly all Jordanians, however, want nothing to do with such a plan and get angry whenever an Israeli politician raises this proposal: It would endanger the Hashemite Kingdom.
Despite these other plans gaining support, the Palestinian Authority still wants a negotiated two-state solution. Israel is strong enough to work out an accord. Officials in Israel's Foreign Ministry say that Israel can, at the very least, reach a shelf agreement with the Palestinian Authority without much difficulty.
That leaves the question of Hamas. Israel is also strong enough to talk to Hamas in order to reach an agreement with it. Israel is strong enough to even talk to Iran, as we are negotiating with Syria. We simply have no choice but to talk to our enemies.
There will always be some Palestinians who oppose reaching an agreement with Israel. There are also elements in Israel who oppose negotiating with Palestinians. But the intense feeling among the majority of Palestinians and Israelis in favor of an agreement must compel our leaders to work urgently and diligently toward a two-state solution.
The urgency is such that if the Palestinians and Israelis do not negotiate seriously, with the sustained assistance of the American administration, and if neither compromises, we will very soon find ourselves facing one of the other solutions, most likely the one-state, or a continuation of the status quo, which is getting worse for Israel and the Palestinians each year.
Fortunately, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators continue to talk. Israel Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni, who hopes to lead the next government, and Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister, have declared peace negotiations a top priority. Several of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators told an Israel Policy Forum delegation in September that the two sides have never been closer. Thus, there is a new opportunity for the United States to advance Israeli-Palestinians peace.
The outgoing Bush and the incoming Obama administrations, as well as the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, must all come to grips with what is happening here and act decisively and quickly to reinvigorate the peace process and keep hope for a two-state solution alive.
Even during its remaining two months, the Bush administration can play a critically important role. It should develop bridging proposals to move the sides even closer to a two-state solution before that concept becomes history.
David Kimche, former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, is president of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations and a member of the Israel Policy Forum's Israel Advisory Council.