[NB The author tries to understand the daily reality of living in Israel in the context of two state solution]
AS I sat in a swanky Tel Aviv restaurant recently, my young waiter caught my accent and asked where I was from.
I told him I lived in Jerusalem. "Jerusalem?" he gasped. "It's full of violence and police checkpoints. I never go there. What's it like now?" And I found myself explaining to an Israeli what life is like in the holy city on the hill.
Part of the difficulty in cracking the endless Middle East conflict is that the principal players are themselves labouring under deep internal divisions. In Washington, world leaders are talking about a two-state solution, but in reality there are about four different states.
The divisions within the Palestinian ranks are clear - Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that is opposed to Israel's very existence, has ruled the Gaza Strip since its forceful takeover three years ago. The West Bank is under the nominal control of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, propped up by the US and EU, although huge swaths are in reality controlled by Israel, through its settlers and military.
In Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank, young men and women sit and smoke in stylish cafes or dance the night away in bars while drinking beer. In Gaza, dubbed "Hamastan" by the Israeli media, the Islamist rulers have banned women from smoking water-pipes in public, and a sign at the border police post informs visitors that any alcohol found in their possession will be poured on to the ground. In any case, most Gazans are far too poor, after years of the Israeli blockade, to go to cafes. The two territories feel as remote as East and West Germany during the Cold War.
There are deep differences within Israeli society, too: on the one hand there is secular, liberal Israel, which is at loggerheads with the religious Israel of ultra-Orthodox ghettoes and zealous settlers. Tel Aviv is a cosmopolitan city, renowned worldwide for its nightlife, fine restaurants and gay scene. Jerusalem is a poor city that has become poorer as the middle classes have deserted it. The rising influence of the ultra-Orthodox, whose menfolk choose state-subsidised religious studies over work, has made it less hospitable to secular Israelis - there are protests against businesses that open on the Sabbath and local newspapers Photoshop out the faces of female cabinet ministers.
These internal divisions have led in large part to a stalemate. Fatah and Hamas have been holding fruitless "reconciliation dialogue" for years now. Hamas claims that since it won the last elections in the Palestinian territories, in 2006, it is the legitimate leadership. Fatah points to what it calls the "gangster coup" in Gaza as evidence that its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, has the right to rule by fiat. In truth, the Palestinian people are tired of all their leaders.
In Gaza, Palestinians are struggling just to keep their heads above water. The Israeli blockade has devastated the economy, and the recent easing of restrictions, allowing more goods into the Strip, has done nothing to get people their jobs back. In the West Bank, the opening of many checkpoints has allowed the economy to pick up a little, but the cafes are filled with families of the Palestinian Authority's sprawling civil service, whose salaries are still paid by Western donors, principally the Europeans.
Israelis, too, are tired of their politicians - their last prime minister is fighting corruption charges and their previous president was accused of rape - and have all but given up on the idea of a peace process. But what unites most Israelis is a sense of indifference. Since Israel's military crushed the Palestinian uprising several years ago and built a massive security barrier inside the West Bank, Israel's economy has thrived and tourism swelled.
Most Israelis don't think about the millions of Palestinians on the other side of the walls and fences, unless Hamas is firing its rockets into the communities in the south. But since Israel's devastating offensive into Gaza in late 2008, even those have slowed to a minor annoyance. Israel is enjoying the peace dividend without the peace.
What its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is offering Abbas is a piece of that peace dividend, though not necessarily peace itself: that cannot be delivered until the dispute with Hamas in Gaza is resolved. Netanyahu has held out the prospect of an "economic peace", an opening of checkpoints and handing over of more security control to the Palestinians in the West Bank to allow business to grow and shrink the allure of a fresh intifada.
While the Palestinians are wary of this watered-down version of sovereignty, Abbas's Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, has taken advantage of the offer to build up a de facto functioning Palestinian state. His would-be state will be ready, he says, in a year; the time when the current US-brokered peace talks are due to end with a deal. West Bank Palestinians do not want a return to violence, but they doubt whether their weakened leadership can produce a peace deal that will give them true independence. Many now talk about abandoning the two-state solution in favour of a one-state solution - something that makes them uncomfortable bedfellows with the Jewish settlers, who want to see a Greater Israel in the West Bank.
While traditionally hardline settlers have called for the "transfer" of Palestinians to Jordan, some settler leaders now say they would be happy for them to stay as long as they acknowledge that it is a Jewish state.
The disillusioned Palestinians argue that the Palestinian Authority is a Vichy-style fig leaf for the Israeli occupation, its infrastructure built up with EU funding and destroyed at regular intervals by US munitions supplied to the Israeli forces. They believe a one-state solution would force Israel either to give them full rights as citizens or to turn the country into an apartheid regime, in which they would probably constitute the majority with their higher birth rates.
Either way, it would be Zionism's worst nightmare, an end to the dream of a Jewish-majority democratic state. But it may prove the last bargaining chip of a desperate, war-weary people.
Note: Articles listed under this section provide information on the current discourse concerning the Israeli - Arab Palestinian End Game. The views expressed in these articles are the views of the authors' and are not included here to represent the views of Z STREET.