If it wasn't for the fact that America can't chew gum and hold an election at the same time, politicians and the media would have been buzzing about what happened this week in Israel. Well, what happened? Dov Weisglass, a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that Israel's planned unilateral pullout from Gaza will put an end to new negotiations with the Palestinians.
"Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda," he said.
In other words, that "road map" that President Bush has promoted as the singular initiative of his Israeli-Palestinian policy -- forget about it.
"Dov Weisglass explained very nicely that Sharon is implementing the disengagement plan to ensure that a final, wider peace deal goes to hell," opined Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Samet.
But did the diplomat mean exactly what he said? An American Jewish activist who opposes the prime minister's Gaza pullout suggested to me that the Weisglass statement was a sop to the hard right. Lull your right wing into believing the withdrawal will concretize their dream of Greater Israel, suggested Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, and perhaps they will go along with it.
Then again, Weisglass might have meant it. The Gaza withdrawal and the separation barrier on the West Bank would create a de facto Palestinian territory whose configurations would render viable statehood impossible.
This solution is brilliant except for one small fact: it won't solve the problem.
This point was made abundantly clear in a presentation retired Israeli Adm. Ami Ayalon gave last month to members of the Pacific Council on International Policy here in Los Angeles.
The problem, Ayalon reminded the group, is that between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the Arab population will shortly outnumber the Jewish population. Sharon's maneuvering doesn't create a peaceful settlement between two viable states, but an imposed arrangement by one state on a hostile population. If that population demands one person, one vote -- Israel is a democracy after all -- the Jewish state is finished.
"Time is running out on the window of opportunity," Ayalon said. "In a few short years, the two-state option will not exist anymore, because of demography, and violence will prevail. If we don't withdraw, we will have to choose between Jewish apartheid and transfer."
Ayalon is compact and muscular with a tough, impatient manner. That is to say, he is Israeli. He spent 34 years in the Israeli navy, rising to commander-in-chief, and four years as director of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service. Last year he joined with the Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh to found the People's Voice Initiative, a grass-roots campaign for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
The initiative, according to Ayalon, has gathered 150,000 Palestinian and 200,000 Israeli signatures on a simple six-point document that outlines a two-state solution (www.mifkad.org.il/en/).
"During the 12 months before the intifada broke out in 1999, we enjoyed security," Ayalon said. "Only one Israeli was killed as a result of terror, whereas we have lost over 1,000 Israeli lives during the last three years. What was the reason for the collapse of security? It was not because the Shin Bet was better when I was in charge."
Israel's security is better now, in fact. What has changed became clear to Ayalon in a conversation with a Palestinian psychologist.
"He told me the Palestinians have won," Ayalon said. "I asked him, how come? Are you crazy? You've lost so many people, you are losing your freedom, you are losing your dreams. He said, 'Ami, you don't understand us. Victory for us means seeing you suffer. And as long as we shall suffer, you will suffer. Finally, after 55 years, we are not the only ones who suffer in the Middle East, and this is victory for us.' For me, this was something new that I had not previously understood. As long as the Palestinians don't have hope, we shall not have security."
Ayalon dismissed the idea that withdrawal and a fence alone could protect Israel -- the very idea that Weisglass floated this week.
"In the long-run it will not give us the security we expect," he told the Council. "They will dig tunnels, fire rockets and later missiles. It will only postpone conflict."
The conflict has spawned a cottage industry in peace initiatives over the past years, from Geneva to Hollywood. Ayalon believes The People's Voice to be the most realistic, simply because of its founders' credentials, and the popular support the petition has garnered.
Still, several of the Council members around the table were skeptical that Yasser Arafat was any more a partner for peace now than he was during Oslo.
"Arafat is not a partner," countered Ayalon, with refreshing non-peacenik bluntness. "But there are Palestinians who are pragmatic enough. If Palestinians on the street adopt it, this will give [leaders] permission to accept. Our leaders have become followers."
Now Israel's leader has begun to initiate what looked like thoughtful measures to reduce terror and increase the chances of a negotiated settlement. If these measures turn out to be the end of the road, not the beginning, Ayalon's predictions may very well come true, and the present conflict will become the nightmare of yet another generation.