For Britons who managed to tear themselves away from the David Blunkett saga on TV Monday night, there was drama of a different kind on BBC2. "Elusive Peace" charted the story of Bill Clinton's failed attempt to resolve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, a struggle that reached its dismal climax at Camp David in 2000. This latest effort by remarkable filmmaker Norma Percy, who has created her own subgenre of TV diplomatic history, featured interviews with all the key players -- Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, Clinton himself -- telling the inside story of midnight talks, eavesdropped conversations, last-minute panics and, tragically, the inability to move that final inch toward what might have been a deal.
It was compelling television, but also instructive. For it showed just how much has changed in the intervening five years. Arafat is dead; Sharon is no longer the rabble-rouser whose walkabout on the Temple Mount did so much to derail the peace process, but prime minister; Clinton is the elder statesman, his former residence occupied by a man whose Middle East focus has not been peace in Israel-Palestine but war in Iraq.
It's not just the personalities who have changed. The past five years have also seen a wider shift, away from the across-the-table negotiations of the Clinton era toward a newer, more enigmatic model. The days of bilateral talks and mutuality have gone. Now we are in the age of unilateralism.
As if to underline the point, Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were due to meet Tuesday for a summit. For the second time in as many weeks, they called it off. So much for those who thought that Israel's August withdrawal from Gaza -- the prime example of the new unilateralism -- would trigger a return to the negotiating table and rapid progress toward a signed agreement.
That's not how it is anymore. Yes, Gazans are relieved to be rid of the Israelis at last. And yes, Israelis -- despite some persistent violence, with Palestinian rockets fired across the new "border" -- still believe the pullout was the right move. But that does not mean the two sides are about to reach across the divide and touch each other. Instead they are looking inward.
For the Israelis, that's a matter of politics. Sharon's concern now is not Abbas, but his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu. A fortnight ago he successfully fought off a leadership challenge from Bibi, and he wants to preserve that advantage; he will do nothing that might hand his rival ammunition. He will not release Palestinian prisoners, nor bow to Abbas' request for more weapons for his security forces -- nothing, in other words, that would allow Bibi to accuse Sharon of treachery. That's why the summit with Abbas could not go ahead: There was nothing Sharon was willing to give his Palestinian counterpart.
Meanwhile, Abbas (or Abu Mazen) is in a strikingly similar hole. Challenged by Hamas, which pulled in a quarter of the vote in recent municipal elections on the West Bank -- a creditable score, given that their political base is Gaza -- Abbas could not afford to return from a summit empty-handed. He has a genuine fight on his hands with Hamas -- one that could explode into a civil war that his own threadbare forces could lose. The sense that the Palestinian Authority writ does not run in Gaza, that either anarchy or Hamas rules there, is proving deeply damaging, suggesting the Israeli withdrawal has not helped the Palestinian Authority but undermined it. The result is that Abbas too is devoting the post-Gaza lull to securing his own internal position, rather than hatching grand schemes for an accord with the enemy.
This phase of introspection reflects the broader trend. I spoke Tuesday with Eival Gilady, who served as a close advisor to the Israeli prime minister on the Gaza disengagement. His message was clear: The ball is now in the Palestinians' court. Under the internationally endorsed road map, the next step is for the Palestinians to put their own house in order, starting with a crackdown on terrorism.
If that were to happen, then Israel might make a further move. Revealingly, Gilady cites the unilateral disarmament steps taken by Mikhail Gorbachev, which paved the way for a mutually agreed arms pact later. "When you act unilaterally, it doesn't stay unilateral," he says. In other words, Israel moves first on Gaza. Then Abbas stabilizes the P.A. Then Israel will act again. Not a peace process exactly, but a series of one-sided moves: Call it sequential unilateralism.
Under that logic, what would Israel's next act be? In the past few days, the Israeli press has been bubbling with hints from key officials at further unilateral pullouts, this time from the West Bank. The scenario seems to be that Sharon sits tight for now, sees off Bibi, fights, wins an election next year -- and then stages a series of mini-disengagements. Gary Sussman, an analyst at Tel Aviv University, says the map for those withdrawals is already laid out. "The fence is the border," he says, confident that Israel would pull back, more or less, to the line traced by the wall, or security barrier, it has built through the West Bank. That would entail dismantling a few isolated settlements and keeping the large settlement blocs.
Such a move would see Israel out of, perhaps, 50 percent or 60 percent of the West Bank. Combined with Gaza that would represent the de facto Palestinian state, promised by the road map and now routinely demanded by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and everyone else.
The old guard of Palestinian leaders, including Abbas, are said to be deeply depressed at this prospect. For such an entity would leave them no access to Jerusalem and would represent substantially less territory than the Clinton parameters promised in December 2000. It would not be the two-state solution they sought for two decades but, says Sussman, something less: "A one and three-quarter state solution."
What's more, Sharon would make this move and win not just international acceptance but praise. The Gaza withdrawal won plaudits from the United Nations and the European Union; even Pakistan broke Muslim ranks to start a diplomatic engagement with Israel last month. If there were to be more pullouts in the West Bank, Sharon would be a hero once more. There would be no pressure on him; it would all be on the Palestinians, who would rapidly be cast as grudging and difficult for not receiving these chunks of the West Bank with gratitude.
No wonder the likes of onetime peace negotiators Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi are said to be glum. They must realize that in the new game of sequential unilateralism they are being outplayed by an Israeli prime minister who is proving a far cannier strategist than anyone expected. They should avoid watching "Elusive Peace"; it will only make their moods darker. There they will see how much better they might have fared under the old game.
Clinton recalls a proposal he made in late 2000 that would have split Jerusalem and given the Palestinians sovereignty over the upper Haram al-Sharif, with Israeli control over the lower Temple Mount. "Who could accept this?" says Arafat, from the grave. Now his people may have to brace themselves for accepting much less.
This article has been provided by the Guardian through a special arrangement with Salon. ) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005. Visit the Guardian's Web site at http://www.guardian.co.uk.