With the peace process frozen, it’s time to think outside the box.

During her post-NATO summit visit to Copenhagen, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked whether the United States would support Israeli unilateral action or an interim solution in the west Bank. The question came after Israeli Defense Minister Barak suggested that if (when?) negotiations with the Palestinians fail, a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West bank would be in Israel’s interest. Israeli citizens in isolated areas would be relocate to major settlement blocks closer to the 1949 armistice line, in order to disentangle Israel from the Palestinians. This would pave the way for an eventual two-state outcome.

Clinton rejected the idea, asserting that the US would only support a negotiated solution achieved through “direct talks between the parties.”  In addition, Clinton proclaimed that the “new coalition government in Israel provides the best opportunity in several years to reach such a negotiated agreement.”  Given that the political realities in Israel and among the Palestinians make direct negotiations, let alone a conflict-ending deal, impossible in the foreseeable future, Clinton would do well to reconsider her position.

The current Palestinian political situation offers little hope for a peace agreement with Israel in the foreseeable future.. PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s term has expired. The Hamas junta in the Gaza Strip has seceded from his authority. The Palestinian Legislative Council no longer functions. Abbas’s efforts to resuscitate Palestinian political institutions through an agreement with Hamas to hold long-overdue elections have failed. By swearing in a new cabinet under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Abbas has acknowledged that Palestinian elections in the near future are a lost cause. These inconvenient truths create an environment in which Abbas’s mandate to negotiate with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is tenuous, at best.

If Abbas were able to magically surmount these obstacles and return to the negotiating table, it would be nearly impossible for him to make the compromises necessary for a conflict-ending agreement with Israel. A large portion of the Palestinian public would view concessions on Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and security as compromising inalienable “Palestinian rights.” Even if Abbas were not suffering from a legitimacy deficit that undermines his mandate to negotiate with Israel, he would likely conclude that the revolutionary turmoil sweeping the Arab world might complicate the task of selling his public on concessions that speak to the heart of Palestinian identity.

Without a political mandate to make concessions toward Israel, it is nearly impossible to envision how Abbas would implement an agreement with Israel. Since Abbas lacks the electoral legitimacy to bind the Palestinian public to an agreement with Israel, the only way to legitimize and implement an agreement would be through a plebiscite. It is unlikely, however, that such a referendum would take place. While Hamas has indicated that it might abide by the results of a plebiscite in favor of a peace treaty with Israel, it has insisted upon the participation of the Palestinian Diaspora before it allows a referendum in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, given Hamas’s record of obfuscating previous commitments to hold elections in Gaza, it is unlikely that they would suddenly reverse course and consent to a referendum on an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.

The political reality among the Palestinians makes it nearly impossible for Abbas to negotiate, let alone conclude and implement, a peace agreement with Israel.  Unfortunately, the political scene in Israel offers no brighter prospects. Despite Secretary Clinton’s protestations, the new coalition government is no more likely than the old coalition to reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians

At first blush, Bibi Netanyahu’s 94-member mega-coalition might appear to offer the possibility of a breakthrough. Kadima, Netanyahu’s senior coalition partner, is led by Minister Shaul Mofaz, who favors an incremental approach to ending the conflict with the Palestinians. Mofaz has called for an interim Palestinian state to be established through direct negotiations with the PA, as a step toward a permanent-status agreement that resolves all outstanding issues between the two states and ends the conflict.

The fact remains, however, that Mofaz’s influence is limited. Netanyahu’s political survival ultimately depends upon his ability to maintain his position as the Likud party chairman. This makes him beholden to the well-organized, hard-right elements with Likud. The “nationalist camp” has learned its lessons from the Gaza disengagement, and has  organized both within and outside Likud in order to prevent further withdrawals. At the Likud convention during the recent run up to aborted elections, the hard-right organized a successful procedural coup which would have led to a Likud Knesset faction packed with enough ideological nationalists to place Netanyahu in a diplomatic straight jacket. Hence the last minute deal to avoid an election.

If the furor over Netanyahu’s plan to relocate the five houses built on private Palestinian land in Bet El is any indication, the new unity government has failed to rescue Netanyahu from the stranglehold of the ideological, right-wing elements within the Likud. After months of wheeling and dealing to find  a palatable way of complying with a High Court ruling to evacuate the structures, Netanyahu decided to move the houses, intact, to another location within the settlement. He also promised to build fifty new buildings in nearby settlements, and recommitted himself publicly to expanding the settlement enterprise.

Despite Netanyahu’s nearly complete capitulation, Jerusalem remains festooned with signs calling for legislation to save the five houses from their dire fate. The message to Netanyahu is crystal clear: the hard right-wing has learned the lessons of the Sinai and Gaza. They will fight tooth and nail, both within Likud party institutions and on the grassroots level, against any Likud party leader who attempts to relocate a single Jewish settler. A Likud Chairman who withdraws from territory in the West Bank, or who signs a document establishing a Palestinian State, is unlikely to remain in office for very long. Netanyahu is too shrewd a politician to ignore this message.

With Netanyahu paralyzed by the hard-right, and Abbas unable to secure a mandate for compromise, the peace process is likely to remain frozen for the near future. If the United States truly seeks a way forward for Israel and the Palestinians, it must begin by realistically assessing the political realities in Israel and among the Palestinians. With a conflict-ending solution out of reach, the US must examine alternatives to a final-status agreement in order to manage the conflict while increasing the likelihood of an eventual two-state reality. This means considering the kinds of constructive unilateral actions or interim arrangements which Secretary Clinton rejected.

With “peace now” out of reach, the challenge is ensuring that “peace later” remains possible.