JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A Palestinian state, Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday, is in Israel's best interests.
Many Israelis, not least supporters of the likely incoming government, do not see it that way. And many Palestinians are giving up hope that continuing the U.S.-backed "peace process" can deliver them the independent state Clinton is talking about.
On her first visit to Jerusalem as U.S. secretary of state, Clinton's assertion that "a two-state solution is inescapable" and "in Israel's best interests" was pointed. Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanayahu is strenuously avoiding committing to a Palestinian state as he tries to form a ruling coalition.
Her comments reflect near-unanimity among Western diplomats that there is no other way out of 60-odd years of bloodshed.
But Clinton needed look no further than Israel's top-selling newspaper on Tuesday for evidence of the vigorous debate swirling around the new government on alternative ideas.
"Not only is this not the only solution, it is a bad solution," former general and national security adviser Giora Eiland wrote in an opinion piece in Yedioth Ahronoth daily. "And it is unlikely that it will ever be possible to achieve it."
Eiland, whose proposals are not widely endorsed but reflect a growing willingness to question U.S.-backed ideas, said a Palestinian state would pose too great a threat to Israel and Jewish settlers could not be easily forced from the West Bank.
Instead, he proposed either Jordan taking on the Palestinian territories or a regional pact with Jordan and Egypt, in which they, Israel and the Palestinians would swap territory.
"Netanyahu would do well not to make do with just rejecting the idea of 'two states' and to persuade the United States to examine other solutions," Eiland wrote. "Obama spoke of change. Here is a way to change the way Americans see the issues."
Those particular options have long been rejected by Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians themselves and they are certainly not on the public agenda of Netanyahu as he seeks to persuade the outgoing ruling centrists to join a national unity government.
But the Likud leader, who will have to rely on a right-wing majority in parliament if his talks with centrist Kadima leader Tzipi Livni fail, has avoided endorsing the Palestinian state that Washington and his predecessors have committed to.
Netanyahu is not opposed to Palestinian statehood, but says it should have limited sovereignty and not be the guaranteed outcome of negotiations. The formulation "two states for two peoples," used by Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. leaders who relaunched talks at Annapolis in 2007 is not one he favours.
"The headline of 'two states for two peoples' may have to be interpreted in different ways," said Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to Washington and foreign relations chief of Likud. He echoed Eiland's comments about Israel's security concerns.
"Whether at the end of the day it's called a Palestinian state, or a state with limited sovereignty ... that is something that will have to come out of the negotiations," Shoval said.
Many in Likud thought a Jordanian annexation of the West Bank "a good idea," he added. But one that would have to be the fruit of negotiation between the Palestinians and Jordan.
Palestinians have grown increasingly disillusioned with a peace process that has made little progress.
"There is no alternative to two states if peace is to be realised. But the practical possibilities of the two states are evaporating," said former cabinet minister Ghassan Khatib.
Israelis point to the 2006 parliamentary election victory of Hamas, an Islamist group that rejects Israel's existence, and to Hamas's seizure of the Gaza Strip and its rocket fire on Israel, as obstacles to negotiations with the Western-backed Palestinian administration of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
But Khatib, like many Western diplomats, said Israel's own policies, notably of pursuing Jewish settlement in the West Bank in spite of U.S.-sponsored agreements to the contrary, were also driving the rise of hardline violence among Palestinians.
"Both Likud and Kadima are in agreement on practices that undermine the possibilities of a Palestinian state," he said.
Many Palestinians, he concluded, are resigned to a bitter status quo under Israeli occupation for the foreseeable future.
Such sentiments were echoed on the eve of Clinton's visit by the left-wing Israeli movement Peace Now, which issued a report condemning new settlement plans. The new government's choice, it said, was either "two states for two nations" or "continued conflict and violence which will result in a bi-national state." Such a unitary state, with Israel essentially annexing the West Bank and Gaza, is held up by Israeli centrists like Livni as a reason to push for a two-state solution -- the alternative, they say, is a state where Jews would end up as a minority.
Yet for some on the Israeli right, that "demographic problem" should not have priority over a religious duty to incorporate Biblical Jewish lands into the state of Israel.
Responding to Peace Now's forecast that settlement expansion could kill off the two-state solution, Yaakov Katz, a leader of the National Union, a potential right-wing ally in a Netanyahu coalition, was quoted as saying: "With God's help, this will all happen in the next few years. There will be one state."
Clinton's visit, ending in the West Bank on Wednesday, will leave her in little doubt about the obstacles on the path to a Palestinian state. But she is unlikely to offer an alternative.
As one veteran Western diplomat in Jerusalem said: "There is only one answer -- a two-state solution.
"Talk of a one-state solution is all very well -- the problem is that it's not really a solution, it's an outcome."
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)