Recently an Israeli and a Palestinian went to see God. They asked whether there would ever be a permanent peace between their two peoples. "Of course there will," replied God. "But it won't be in my time."
One could be forgiven for believing, after the past week in Gaza, that God may have got it right. As the death toll mounts, as the hatred grows, it is difficult to envisage a political breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians in coming months.
And yet Israel/Palestine remains different from many of the other crises spots that disfigure the political world. India and Pakistan have been battling over Kashmir since 1948. They remain nowhere near a formula or a solution that would resolve the dispute and meet both their aspirations.
Likewise, China and Tibet have been locked in struggle since the Dalai Lama's flight in 1959. On neither Tibetan independence nor genuine autonomy has Beijing budged an inch and the prospect is only one of further conflict. The same could be said of the Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Chechens in Russia.
Israel and Palestine are different. Israel achieved a durable and reliable peace with both Egypt and Jordan with whom it was at war on several occasions. Israelis and Palestinians have endorsed a two-state solution as the goal towards which they strive. Negotiations, on several occasions, have not just covered generalities but also have included the most sensitive issues such as the future of East Jerusalem and possible land swaps to take account of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Unlike 10 years ago, most Israelis and most Palestinians have expressed support for a two-state solution to their dispute.
The gulf between the two sides remains very wide. Hamas, of course, has not been party to any of these negotiations and current events in Gaza have destroyed any prospect of early progress. But out of tragedy can, sometimes, emerge hope.
The three essential ingredients for progress are, firstly, an Israeli government, elected in February's general election, that is committed to new negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state and the concessions and compromises that that will require.
Secondly, there is an obvious urgent need for meaningful Palestinian unity between Fatah and Hamas. The current split not only weakens the Palestinian voice but also makes it impossible for negotiations to deliver a comprehensive peace.
Thirdly, the United States remains the only power able to provide the security guarantees that will be needed to underpin any settlement. Barack Obama's presidency, with no White House elections due for four years, offers an unprecedented opportunity for a major initiative that would put real pressure on Israelis and Palestinians. The tragedy in Gaza may, inadvertently, help on delivering each of these requirements. The conflict has boosted the popularity of the Israeli government at the expense of opposition leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is resolutely against a Palestinian state.
While Palestinians might, understandably, see all Israeli politicians as bellicose Zionists, reality is that Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak have concluded that a Palestinian state and withdrawal from most of the West Bank is in Israel's interests as well as that of the Palestinians. A ceasefire in Gaza that prevents missiles from being smuggled into the territory in future and the substantial damage that has been done to Hamas's infrastructure may be sufficient to justify the conflict in Israeli eyes and secure Livni and Barak electoral victory.
The past few weeks has also demonstrated the disunity of the Palestinians caused by the Fatah-Hamas split. The Egyptian, Saudi and Jordanian governments loathe Hamas. The conflict has distracted attention from the Saudi peace plan of King Abdullah. It offers a comprehensive peace in the region and has attracted favourable comment from Israeli President Shimon Peres and other leaders in Jerusalem.
While many might assume that Israel favours Palestinian disunity on the principle of "divide and rule", the reality is that it has been a disaster from the point of view of anyone who wants a negotiated peace leading to a Palestinian state. Hamas continuing to rule in Gaza would mean a three-state problem, not a two-state solution.
The Obama presidency, combined with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, offers an extraordinary opportunity for real progress. Although Obama will be well disposed towards Israel, because of his personal beliefs and political necessity, we are likely to see, for the first time for many years, an American president prepared to put real pressure on the Israelis to concede a Palestinian state with territorial integrity and economic viability.
Obama comes to office with massive public support. A strong position on Israel/Palestine would also help him to garner the support he needs for tough international action against Iran in the event that it should become necessary.
It may be difficult to be optimistic about the Middle East, but I was once told that the pessimist was someone who believes that things couldn't be worse while the optimist knows that they could be. We must never lose sight of the two great, positive developments of the past few years.
The first was the conversion of mainstream Israeli and Palestinian public opinion and politicians to support for a Palestinian state combined with recognition of the state of Israel. The second has been the declaration by all the Arab states of the region that they are prepared to accept Israel as a permanent state in the Middle East as part of a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution.
If Israelis, Palestinians and Arab governments could achieve peace on this basis, there would be little that Hamas could do about it. They would be seen as irrelevant, if not actually harmful, to the aspirations of their fellow Palestinians. We are far from that position today. Many will believe that its attainment is unrealistic. But there is an old Israeli saying that "miracles take longer". We could do with the odd miracle right now.
Malcolm Rifkind was Foreign Secretary from 1995 to 1997Reuse content