JERUSALEM (AP) - Nine months of U.S.-driven diplomacy have left Israelis and Palestinians less hopeful than ever about a comprehensive peace agreement to end their century of conflict. Although a formula may yet be found to somehow prolong the talks past an end-of-April deadline, they are on the brink of collapse and the search is already on for new ideas.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts have exposed vast differences: On sharing Jerusalem, resolving the situation of millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees, and even borders, the sides seem nowhere close to agreement. And Thursday, Israel said it halted the talks in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' decision a day earlier to form a unity government with the Islamic militant Hamas movement, which Israel and the West consider a terrorist group.
"Unfortunately, under the current conditions, it is apparently not possible to reach 'end of conflict' - or, in more poetic language, a peace agreement," said dovish Cabinet member Amram Mitzna, a former general in charge of the West Bank.
Mohammed Madani, a leading member of Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, said the Palestinian leader told visiting Israeli politicians that the Palestinians "cannot continue with talks in vain."
He said the Palestinians will press with their applications for membership as a state with various United Nations and other world bodies, a strategy aimed at entrenching the view that all the area Israel captured in the 1967 war is a foreign country and not - as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have it - "disputed territory."
The effort by Palestinians and their supporters to engineer an economic boycott of Israel also likely will grow.
And so will concerns that a third Palestinian uprising will erupt.
Some Israelis, like powerful Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, call for a punitive annexation of parts of the West Bank, which seems a hollow threat but inflames tempers further.
Israel's more moderate political parties can be expected to try to topple Netanyahu, either forcing new elections or organizing an alternative majority in the Knesset which would be more forthcoming with the Palestinians. It's not inconceivable, given that they control almost half of the body, Israel's right wing is divided and the angst in the country is strong.
Here are some directions the discourse may take:
PARTIAL SETTLEMENT PLUS OLD CITY THROWN IN
Mitzna and a host of others, including former minister Yossi Beilin, architect of the 1990s accords establishing the Palestinian Authority, call for an interim arrangement in which the Palestinians would get statehood on most but not all the land they seek. They would get nothing on the refugees, but would not have to renounce any further claims either.
The Palestinians fear that freed of what Israelis call the "demographic danger," Israel's motivation to ever cede anything further will vanish.
Israel would have to present serious enticements to overcome such objections.
"We need to propose such a generous offer that the world will say to the Palestinians, 'You cannot reject this,'" veteran commentator Ehud Yaari said.
Such an enticement might be a new arrangement in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, a key issue which to date has been tethered to the final settlement idea. It might instead agree even within an interim deal to joint custody of the area with its Christian, Jewish and Muslim holy sites, possibly with the inclusion other Muslim countries and outside powers - a sort of Vatican of the Holy Land. That would be a big symbolic prize - even if it still leaves open the question of the rest of east Jerusalem, adjacent to the ancient area, which the Palestinians also seek as a capital.
UNILATERAL PULLOUT WITH MILITARY
There are plenty of Israelis who cannot envision a peace deal of any kind yet still fear the demographic issue enough to want a pullout.
Ariel Sharon, prime minister from 2001-2006, was a longtime hawk but eventually concluded the occupation was bad for Israel. He shocked everyone by ordering all Israeli soldiers out of the Gaza Strip and evicting the almost 10,000 Jewish settlers living there. Israel thus unburdened itself of ruling Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians at a meager territorial cost.
But the West Bank - its borders formed by the armistice lines of the 1948-49 war that created Israel - is more valuable than Gaza. Its highland juts into Israel enough to leave Israel a few miles wide at its narrowest point, surrounds Jerusalem on three sides and is packed with biblical sites. Moreover, the Gaza pullout didn't bring peace on that border. In 2007, the Islamic militants of Hamas seized control there, and since then Israel has faced periodic rocket barrages and fought two mini-wars with Hamas.
If there is no separation, the logical long-term default seems to be a single state of Israelis and Palestinians, in which neither has superior rights. Most Israelis dismiss this as not plausible - but history may not ask Israel its view.
How long can Israelis continue to insist that beyond the 1967 lines - which they hardly themselves respect, considering the settlement construction - there must be a different regime than in Israel proper, one in which Palestinians are denied full democratic rights, unlike their brethren within the country's official borders?
Even many Israelis now see a single democratic state as inevitable. Some are leftists who always disliked the nationalism inherent in establishing a Jewish state; others cannot bring themselves to abandon the land, often for religious reasons; and then there are others who have simply despaired of a way out.
Abbas alluded to this in a meeting several days ago with Israeli lawmakers, threatening to "hand over the keys" of the Palestinians' autonomy government, saddle Israel with direct control of millions of Palestinians, and let it fend for itself.
"The only realistic solutions are the two states or one state," Tirawi said. "If Israel keeps building in our land, the Palestinian Authority would collapse and then we are going to end up with one state for two peoples. And I think this has become the more realistic."