What made the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the agreement that started the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, possible? I believe, above all, it was shared expectations about the demographic future. True, there are still more problems than solutions to most practical, especially procedural questions of a truly open-ended devolution in Northern Ireland. But despite serious, sometimes violent, setbacks and the continuiing suspension of the Stormont government, mostly due to loyalist and nationalist splinter groups‘ non-compliance, IRA decommissioning, and party system induced radicalisation tendencies in the run-up to any important decision, serious people on both sides – Northern Irish Unionists and Irish Republicans alike – realised that a democratically concluded reunification of Ireland can not be ruled out in the long run given current and expected birth rates. The common expectation that the current minority could well become the voting majority in the medium term, regardless of the electoral system used, has thus tempted both parties to agree on power sharing now – as well as when the tables will have turned.

Even with shared expectations of the fundamental trends there are innumerable obstacles on the way to build the most important prerequisute of true peace – trust – just as the the British and Irish governments stated in paragraph 3 of their April 2003 joint declaration intended to overcome the current suspension of the Good Friday agreement.

„A key impediment to completing the evolution to such a society in Northern Ireland is that both major traditions have lacked confidence and trust in each other. A major factor contributing to the erosion of the confidence and trust of law-abiding people throughout the community has been the continuing active manifestations of paramilitarism, sectarian violence and isorder. While it would not be possible to complete the transition to longer-term peace and stability by dwelling forever on the undoubted wrongs and associated hatred of the past, neither is it possible to create a new beginning without taking account of, and addressing, its legacies.“

Now imagine a situation in which the opposing parties/peoples do not (yet?) believe in the same version of the future. Welcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A conflict in which neither party is absolutely sure that the „two state“ solution will be the eventual outcome of conflict, and, moreover, a conflict, in which perceptions of the discounted future are highly volatile.

Too many Palestinians in charge as well as on the streets still believe that demographics are on their side. After all, the population of the occupied territories tripled over the last thirty years to more than three million now. Even within Israel, the percentage of the Arab population doubled from 10 percent in the 1950s to 20 percent today – quite achievement given the Jewish population of Israel rose tenfold from only about 500,000 in 1948 to about five million today. Too many Palestinians are poor, hopeless and fanatic. And they don’t have any real political leadership or civil society.

Seeing this, it is not too surprising that the mainstream Israeli society is eternally undecisive and devided about how to deal with the ongoing threat of being blown up simply for boarding a bus or shopping at the wrong store at the wrong time beyond „tightening security“, which is, in turn, strangling the Israeli economy, thereby also hurting the prospects of the many Palestinians who need this economy to earn a living for their families. Sealing of „the territories“ means less Palestinians in Israel and is thus probably increasing security in the short term, but withdrawing even the slightest benefit of cooperation is probably not going to do the same over the long term.

Will there ever be true peace based on the UN resolution 242’s mantra – „Land For Peace“ – that has been repeated innumerable times since 1967 – including the latest effort, the Akaba agreement? Or to frame the question differently, in the way most Israelis will see it – will there be peace,after a Palestinian state has been founded? Not knowing the answer to this question is not a good reason for any Israeli politician to even contemplate taking on the fanatic settler movement – a move that would very likely lead to intra Israeli sectarian violence.

Why risk this if even the most influential „external“ party in this conflict is not (at least publicly) clearly signalling which way to go?

Sure Mr. Bush boldly said that Akaba (ie UNSC 242) is the way to go. But then there are other powerful Americans like Dick Armey, the former US House of Representatives Majority Leader, who, apparently without any real political consequences, called for an ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories on US television last year, assuming that Jordan would be the better Palestine anyway. Given the electoral importance of American Evangelical Christians for the Republican Party as well as their obession to have a biblical size Eretz Jisrael in order to speed up the „Battle of Armageddon“ (and thus the annihilation of all but 144,000 Jews), this ambivalence might be explainable – but it is certainly not helpful.

However, any two state-solution needs two states, and governments. And that is a problem.

Currently, the Palestinian authority resembles a government to the extent that the West Bank and Gaza resemble a state. Clearly, a state’s „monopoly of power“ will have to be interpreted differently in the Middle East, but as long as other, more radical groups are seriously able to challenge the authority’s authority, there’s no need to negotiate. On the other hand, even if the Palestinian Authority were materially able to seriously fight extremist groups, this would clearly not increase its popularity among the Palestnian people, many of whom still are not so sure about the benefits of a political process, as outlined above. So, and I am serious here, the Israeli government has to weaken the more extremist groups because it is necessary to have a true Palestinian government at some point, but the Palestinian authority could not do it for political reasons, even if it technically could, which is very much in doubt.

Thus, fighting extremist violence, even through coordinated assassinations of sectarian leaders, is probably creating more anger in the short term, but in the long run, it is taking extremist organisations apart, hopefully, without seriously undermining the standing of the Palestinian authority among its people. If Hamas offers a ceasefire, it’s probably not because they have suddenly begun to believe in a UNSC 242 resolution, but because they need a break from fighting to restructure and redeploy.

But while weakening the more extreme forces of Palestinian resistance could strenghthen those on the political front, they still need real hope for a real solution. After all, there is no guarantee those supporting a political process today will still do that tomorrow should they believe it to be ineffective along the lines Ignatz Bubis, the former chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, explained to me back in 1993 with respect to the nascent Oslo agreements – that any Likud government would negotiate them to death: The Palestinians could always decide to revert to the current status quo: conflict management by cradle & stones.

Real hope for a real solution would include not only the cessation of illegal settlement construction along the familiar lines of creating facts by building three initially illegal settlements, and later destroying only the two more problematic one. It would have to include a real „step back“, a removal of a substantial part of „legal“ settlers from the West Bank, a move that, again, is certain to lead to Jewish extremist violence. Thus, any real removal would have to be backed by a broad coalition within the Knesset as well as „on the streets“. For such a coalition to emerge, there must be faith that a real Palestinian government and state will really lead to peace, or, at least, absence of violence. In the course of the last 55 years, Israel’s Defense Forces have successfully managed to ensure the Jewish state’s existence against outside enemies. The next important conflict – hopefully not too violent – will be an internal one.

Only Nixon can go to China, some said when he went to Bejing in 1972 – meaning that only a true conservative was able to politically survive ending two decades of silence with the People’s Republic. Now one might be tempted to argue that it only a hawk with Ariel Sharon’s credentials could believe that he stands a chance to survive such a battle – should he indeed have come to the conclusion most people around the world have long arrived at – that a Palestinian state is indeed inevitable.

I hope he did.