With the end of the "two-state solution" comes a kind of confusion and insecurity for many of the Zionists who saw it as their way out. A big strong Israeli State; and a small, weak, dependent, controlled Palestinian State; is what they saw as their salvation. Without it...they are embitterdd, frightened, and worried more than ever.
w w w . h a a r e t z d a i l y . c o m
February 20, 2004
Too late for two-state?
By Yossi Alpher
We tend to treat the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict as a constant fixture on the horizon. The question usually debated is not whether, but how and when the solution will be achieved, or, alternatively, how to oppose it. Yet the agreed two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians has a very short and troubled history.
Nor, looking to the future, is it written in stone that a two-state solution is the only likely outcome. Indeed, we may soon confront a reality in which a two state-solution is no longer possible, and Jews and Arabs - despite the road map or whatever alternative formula is on the agenda - slide down a slippery slope toward a far more brutal conflict.
This would have dire consequences for Israelis and Palestinians, for the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic state, for the future of the Jewish people, for the Middle East region as a whole, and for American interests there.
A number of prominent Israelis and Diaspora Jews have issued generalized warnings recently regarding these negative consequences of Israel's current policies.
Assuming that a two-state solution is the best outcome, this inquiry seeks to explore in greater detail the possibility that it will soon cease to be feasible. It argues that the growing likelihood of such a development should be sounding alarm bells in many places. And it suggests ways to head off or mitigate such a contingency.
Two-state solution: A short history
Throughout much of the conflict, beginning in the pre-state period, international efforts to achieve a two-state solution (including of course United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, which created "Arab and Jewish states in Palestine") were systematically rejected by the Palestinian leadership - and accepted by the Zionist and later Israeli leadership.
From 1950 to 1967, a Palestinian state was not even on the Arab agenda, while Israel expressed a readiness to turn the armistice lines (Green Line) with the Gaza Strip and the West Bank into official borders within the framework of peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, the two countries occupying those territories. Only in 1988 did the Palestinian National Council, meeting in Algiers, ratify 181 for the first time and endorse a two-state solution.
By that time the Israeli leadership had abandoned the two-state solution in favor of a variety of alternatives that were developed and advocated after the 1967 conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip: returning part of the territories to Jordan; autonomy; annexation ("Jordan is Palestine"), etc.
Even the 1993 Oslo Accords, though made possible by the PNC's 1988 decision, failed to provide a formal joint commitment to an agreed two-state solution. In the ensuing years, prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were implicitly committed to a two-state outcome, but they avoided formal endorsement for a number of reasons: as a negotiating tactic; because they were concentrating on Oslo interim agreements; and because they sought to avoid over-antagonizing Israeli public opinion on the right. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, rejected a two-state solution.
Only in the course of the past four years has the notion of an agreed two-state solution emerged. It was former prime minister Ehud Barak, at Camp David and Taba, backed by then-U.S. president Bill Clinton, who first offered the Palestinians a state of their own in roughly 90-95 percent of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Barak would have removed around one-third of the West Bank and Gaza Strip settlers - some 60-70,000 - and attached the settlements of the remaining two-thirds to Israel. When Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat rejected the terms of that offer - largely over the right of return and Jerusalem Temple Mount issues rather than the proffered map - it became officially "null and void." Then Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to officially endorse the idea (albeit with reference to what would almost certainly be a non-viable state), and George W. Bush the first American president to make a viable two-state solution an official goal of U.S. Middle East policy.
Only in March 2002 did the UN Security Council, in Resolution 1397, once again endorse the two state solution - at about the same time that the Arab League ratified it within the framework of the Saudi Initiative. It is striking that this rush to embrace a two-state solution at the international and inter-Arab levels took place after the process itself had collapsed into violence, and that the Saudis have done nothing - say, in the tradition of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat or Jordan's King Hussein - to address the Israeli public and actively promote their plan.
Threats to the two-state concept
This brief survey of the short history of the two-state solution is particularly significant for those in Israel, Palestine and beyond who have believed in and worked for this solution for decades, and who take it for granted. It should not be taken for granted. First, because the numbers are working against it. Israeli settlements continue to spread throughout the West Bank in a pattern deliberately designed to prevent a viable two-state partition agreement; around 60 new outposts, in reality proto-settlements, have sprung up during Sharon's three years in office alone. His government not only has made no serious effort under the road map to remove them or even to freeze settlement expansion, but it actively "legalizes" outposts and abets settlement expansion with budgets, housing units and bypass roads.
At least until recently, Sharon held regular nocturnal meetings with Ze'ev Hever, the "operations officer" of the ideological settler movement, to discuss ongoing settlement expansion. While Hever and other settler leaders have expressed anger and dismay over Sharon's recent pronouncements regarding the need eventually to move or remove some settlements, Sharon does not appear to intend an extensive rollback - if at all - of the settlement movement.
In parallel, the Palestinian Arab population (in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem) continues to grow at a much faster rate than the Israeli Jewish population. Some sectors - the Negev Bedouin, the Gazans - have growth rates as high as 5-6 percent annually. Jews have already become a minority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; it seems certain that within the decade Arabs will be the majority. It is the juxtaposition of these critical geographic and demographic factors in the course of the past year or two that has rendered the threat to the two-state solution so urgent.
Secondly, while opinion polls show that most Israelis and Palestinians today favor a two-state solution, many of the critical actors are less than fully committed. Sharon's version, a chain of Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements, is not a viable two-state solution. The most energetic and dedicated sector on the Israeli political scene, the settlers - whose hard core comprises no more than 100,000 people (out of some 220,000 settlers, not including East Jerusalem), with several hundred thousand non-settler supporters - are working hard, at least hitherto with Sharon's help, to make a viable two-state solution impossible.
Notably, Sharon's motives are not identical to those of the settlers. Sharon believes that Israel must maintain security control over all the territory, by settling key commanding West Bank hilltops, west-east approach roads and junctions, in order to survive militarily over the long term.
While he wants to "end the occupation" over the Palestinians and he claims to be prepared to make "painful compromises" and most recently to be contemplating unilateral steps, all in order to fulfill a two-state solution, everything in his past and present attitude toward Israel's Arab neighbors and the West Bank and Gaza settlements points to a policy aimed at compelling the Palestinians to accept an autonomous entity mislabeled a "state", based on non-contiguous or barely contiguous enclaves in around 50 percent of the West Bank. This is the "security" legacy that Sharon seeks to leave the people of Israel.
The religious messianic settlers and their supporters, on the other hand, claim the territory as the Jewish people's legitimate and exclusive national heritage and completely reject the notion of Palestinian statehood in the territories. They propose a variety of "solutions" for the Palestinian inhabitants, ranging from "transfer" (in effect, ethnic cleansing) to limited residency rights, Jordanian citizenship, and resettlement in Egyptian Sinai, that are manifestly unacceptable to Palestinians (as well as to Jordan and Egypt).
As noted, the hard core religious-ideological settlers are today a minority within the overall settler movement. But the non-ideological settlers live predominantly in bedroom suburb or "quality of life" settlements near the Green Line, which in any case can be annexed to Israel in return for swapped territories - a principle largely agreed on by Barak and Arafat in 2000, and reinforced at least partially by the Geneva Accord achieved informally in October 2003 by Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabbo and their colleagues. Moreover, as pragmatists, these settlers can if necessary be persuaded to accept compensation and move out.
In contrast, the ideological hard core settlers live predominantly in the mountain heartland area, the cradle of biblical Hebrew civilization, in places like Shiloh, Beit El, Elon Moreh and Hebron, where their settlements were placed (by Sharon and others) precisely in order to prevent the emergence of a coherent Palestinian state. Nor are they likely to agree easily to move - in fact, a few thousand of them are so extreme that they might use the weapons they have been issued for self-protection, to fight Israeli security forces who seek to remove them. Some of these mountain heartland settlements, like Negohot, Yitzhar and Revava, have grown at rates between 11 and 48 percent during the past year alone.
Some settlers point to internal Israeli demographic projections that purport to show that the Israeli Arab population (Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship who live within the State of Israel) will on its own become a majority within the country in some 50-70 years, in order to argue that even a two-state solution cannot preserve Israel as a democratic Jewish country (a position reinforced recently by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated that it is the Israeli Arabs who constitute the "real" demographic problem), and that the only answer is therefore transfer or disenfranchisement of all Palestinians west of the Jordan River.
Beyond its moral unacceptability, this position appears to be fundamentally inaccurate, for several reasons. Firstly, in the Israeli case, long-term demographic projections have frequently proven unreliable - witness the fact that Israel's minority population has for decades, due to Jewish immigration, remained at around 18 percent of the total (and its Muslim population less than 16 percent, despite predictions that it would grow radically.
Secondly, an agreed two-state solution should allow and persuade Israel to give greater equality and even autonomy to its Arab minority, thereby hopefully generating stability and prosperity and slowing the Arab birth rate. Indeed, Arab-Israeli agreement on a two-state solution, including the concept of a Jewish state, might include the redrawing of borders so as to include several large Israeli Arab towns within the Palestinian state, and could conceivably persuade some radical Israeli Arabs to emigrate there in order to fully realize their Palestinian national identity.
Thirdly, even in the current difficult times, only a minority of Israel's Arabs indicate in polls that they would feel greater loyalty to a Palestinian state (if and when it exists) than to Israel.
Finally, this argument is hardly an excuse for not dealing with the immediate demographic threat, whereby nearly five million Palestinian Arabs are currently ruled directly or indirectly by just over five million Israeli Jews who insist that Israel somehow remain a Jewish and democratic state.
The religious settlers, incidentally, have encouraged their youth to serve in large numbers in the combat officer corps of the Israel Defense Forces, thereby indirectly enhancing their influence over army policies vis-a-vis the settlers and the settlements.
While these are excellent officers who have no significant record of disobeying orders, their presence in the army - particularly in the civil administration - alongside large numbers of settlers who serve as senior officials in key ministries like housing and transportation, gives the ideological settler movement confidence that it might mitigate or reduce the consequences of a controversial government decision to try to remove settlers by force.
Meanwhile, the very existence of the settlements is causing increasing divisiveness in Israeli society and nourishing a growing movement to refuse IDF service beyond the Green Line. This is in turn will provide a precedent and a rationale for settler soldiers to refuse to remove settlements, if and when the time comes.
While their strategic concepts differ, both Sharon and the secular right on the one hand, and the religious settler leadership on the other, appear quite simply to believe that they can compel the Palestinians to accept their solutions, while the rest of the world acquiesces. And they seem to think that the end result - gerrymandered Palestinian autonomous enclaves whose population outnumbers that of Jewish Israel and that are surrounded by Israeli territory - will still qualify Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Moreover, even in the unlikely event of a political parting of the ways between Sharon and the ideological settlers, the latter can be expected to fall back on the highly effective and dynamic political lobby they have developed over some 25 years. The settler lobby has thwarted all attempts by Labor and unity governments to blunt the settlements' expansion, and it can be expected to confront a Likud attempt with equal dedication. In short, there is no likely Israeli leader or political coalition on the horizon that could try to remove around 60,000 settlers and hope to remain in office.
Meanwhile, Sharon's own settlement policies are clearly accelerating the folly of Israel's demographic and geographic approach. But it cannot be denied that they follow precedents initiated or tolerated - often for pragmatic political rather than ideological or security considerations - by virtually all of his predecessors since 1975, Labor and Likud prime ministers alike.
Moreover, it is fair to argue that the very fact of settlement expansion, particularly during the 1980s, influenced the PLO finally to accept the principle of the two-state solution, lest there remain no land at all for a Palestinian state. But of course this was hardly the aim of Sharon, the far right, or the settlers.
Within the PLO-led Palestinian mainstream, which still officially advocates a two-state solution, the territorial ideas of Sharon and the settlers are a non-starter. Hence, they are not a formula for an agreed solution - which must, according to a narrative of compromise, sacrifice and "international legitimacy" developed by the PLO and broadly supported by the international community and many Israelis, be based on lines approximating the 1967 borders.
The Palestinian Islamist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad - their popularity growing throughout the intifada years to encompass around one-third of the Palestinian population - reject the notion of any non-Muslim sovereignty at all in historic Palestine. At best, they would acquiesce in a negotiated two-state solution as a tactical and temporary measure.
In fact, in the best revolutionary tradition, they would prefer that the situation deteriorate beyond any hope of a negotiated two state-solution, or that Israel agree to a Palestinian state but also to the Palestinian "right of return," thereby bringing them closer, through prolonged subversion and conflict, to eventual Muslim rule throughout the land.
Indeed, nearly all Palestinians, following Yasser Arafat's lead at Camp David and Taba, also insist that Israel accept at least in principle the right of return of the 1948 Palestinian refugees to the Jewish state, even if few actually exercise this right. And they deny the Jewish historical narrative according to which the Temple Mount (Harem a-Sharif) in Jerusalem constituted the focus of Jewish spiritual and territorial nationhood during the first millennium before the Common Era.
In Israeli eyes these positions seek to imply that Israel was "born in sin" as an artificial colonial construct in 1948. Their considerable impact on Israeli public opinion has been fortified by the radicalization of the Israeli Arab community, personified by charismatic leaders like MK Azmi Bishara who insist that Israel must become a "state of all its citizens", as well as by consistent and extreme Palestinian hate propaganda and incitement, and by the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, which to many Israelis has taken on quasi-existential proportions.
Taken together, these positions and actions are seen to contradict the logic of a viable two-state solution, which must be based on Palestinian acquiescence in the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in part of the ancient Jewish homeland. This explains why Israelis are increasingly skeptical regarding the near-term likelihood of a genuine two-state solution - even as they support the idea - and why many Israelis and Palestinians alike express doubts regarding the ambiguous formulations on these issues included in the Geneva Accord, which in any event is an informal, non-binding formula.
It is important to note at this point that, according to all available survey data, a majority or at least plurality of both Israelis and Palestinians continues to prefer a two-state solution to all alternatives. And of course the Geneva Accord and its predecessor, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh principles, both dedicated to the principle of a two state solution, have attracted considerable attention among both publics.
Yet the question under examination here is not whether a two-state solution is popular, but whether it is politically feasible or even likely in the limited time still available.
As for the United States, President Bush has yet to prove that he is willing and able, within the framework of the road map or some alternative scheme, to enforce or impose his welcome vision of a genuine two-state solution.
In particular, the Bush administration appears to treat U.S. pressure on Israel to restrict settlement construction as a prize for Palestinian good behavior, rather than as a necessity dictated by the need to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state - a need that reflects American as well as Israeli interests. And this, from an administration that has dedicated huge resources to building democracy in the region.
Finally, there is the influence of the pro-Israel Jewish lobby in Washington, with its knee-jerk support for the policies of any serving Israeli prime minister and its Diaspora conservatism, and of the tens of millions of Bush supporters from the Christian right, who favor (and help finance) the settlement movement for their own religious messianic reasons. These sentiments, too, undoubtedly influence administration policymaking regarding the settlements.
The security fence and the road map
Two initiatives of the past year or two, the security fence and the road map, were originally intended to advance the possibility of reaching a realistic two-state solution. Yet they have been skillfully manipulated toward ends that actually prevent such an outcome.
The security fence currently being constructed between Israel and parts of the West Bank was originally proposed by concerned Israelis not only as a means of preventing suicide bombers from entering Israel, but also as a potential way to advance the cause of a two-state solution by physically separating, to the greatest extent possible, the two peoples and their political entities.
In this regard many proponents of the fence advocated building it on or near the 1948-67 armistice line, and accompanying its construction with the unilateral dismantling of isolated settlements that lie beyond the fence, as well as of the settlements in the Gaza Strip. They argued that the possible temporary damage to Israel's deterrent profile in Arab eyes that was liable to be generated by a willful unilateral withdrawal would be far outweighed by the advantages of beginning to separate the two peoples into clearly defined national entities.
This explains Prime Minister Sharon's initial resistance to the idea of the fence. He feared its construction would indeed jeopardize the political and physical survival of the settlements that lie beyond (although it is instructive to note that the fence built ten years ago along the Green Line around the Gaza Strip has not caused the settlements there to wither away; this is yet another testimony to the energy and resourcefulness of the settler movement).
Eventually Sharon embraced the idea, but only as a sop to overwhelming pressure from the public, while delaying construction through bureaucratic subterfuge, and of course without dismantling any settlements.
In January 2003, when he handily beat back the electoral challenge posed by Labor's Amram Mitzna, the latter's advocacy of the fence and of dismantling the settlements of the Gaza Strip was the only effective plank in an otherwise lackluster and confused platform. But Mitzna's defeat discredited the original strategy put forth by the fence advocates, and in the course of the ensuing months Sharon felt emboldened to "hijack" the fence.
He instructed planners to relocate it deep inside the West Bank, and projected an "eastern" fence separating the mountain heartland from the Jordan Valley. In this way, fences would define the boundaries of a Palestinian "state" and serve to finalize Sharon's plans for creating essentially disjointed Palestinian enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements. Only American pressure and Israeli budgetary constraints now delay or slow down this initiative.
In parallel, some moderate right wing circles have begun to present the projected course of the fence as a potential basis for a limited unilateral withdrawal, while Sharon - under growing criticism from former and serving members of the Israeli security establishment and anxious to shore up broad public support in the face of new peace initiatives on the left - has indicated that unilateral withdrawals and dismantling of settlements are a possibility.
Some right wing advocates of this course appear to believe that by moving a few settlements, possibly fencing in 50-60 percent of the West Bank and declaring it and a settlement-free Gaza Strip a "state" ostensibly in fulfillment of phase II of the road map, they will somehow have imposed a permanent political solution - ignoring Palestinian and international objections to the canton or bantustan-like nature of the entity they create.
Nor does the road map-based process inaugurated in the spring of 2003 appear to offer much hope of rescuing the two-state solution. Even assuming that Israelis and Palestinians, motivated by a combination of American support and pressure, succeed in fulfilling the tasks outlined in phase I of the road map (end to violence, dismantling of terrorist infrastructure, Israeli withdrawals, settlement freeze, CBMs, etc.) - a daunting task - the Palestinians are almost certain to balk at phase II (a Palestinian state with provisional borders), insofar as this corresponds roughly with Sharon's vision of final status. The PLO would legitimately fear that Sharon seeks to end the process with a phase II "state" on about 50 percent of the West Bank and Gaza. Nor is there any likelihood at all that Sharon on the one hand, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (or a prime minister designated by him) on the other, could successfully negotiate a phase III final status agreement. The gaps between the two sides regarding territory, the right of return and Jerusalem are simply too great to be bridged.
Indeed, the gaps that remained between the far more moderate Ehud Barak and Arafat in 2000-2001 may indicate that even a more forthcoming Israeli approach than that of Sharon cannot succeed in the near term in reaching agreement with the PLO old guard.
A single-state solution - or "Jewish and democratic"
Against this backdrop of relatively low likelihood that a viable two-state solution can be negotiated in the near future, the settlements and outposts continue to proliferate, ostensibly ensuring that Israel will win the territorial war, even as Palestinian population growth ensures that Israel will lose the demographic war.
In view of this projected dispersal of a Jewish minority population among a Palestinian majority, it becomes increasingly difficult with every passing day - in pragmatic terms of settler relocation and Israeli politics - to repartition mandatory Palestine.
Under a minimally viable two-state agreement, settler removal means the transplanting of at least 60,000 persons from the West Bank and Gaza back into Israel, including into settlements destined to be annexed to Israel. By any standard, such an undertaking would be a daunting moment of truth for the serving Israeli government and the Israeli polity overall. It has consistently deterred Israeli prime ministers, including those on the left like Rabin, Peres and Barak, who openly recognized the eventual need for such a move.
The Beilin-Abed Rabbo Geneva Accord, which calls for the relocation of over 100,000 settlers, seems particularly unrealistic in this respect. The specter of civil strife over such an initiative, carefully cultivated by extremist settlers, recalls in the Israeli collective memory the disastrous consequences of the "Jewish wars" in Palestine that enabled the Romans to complete their conquest and subjugation some 2,000 years ago.
In this atmosphere, more and more Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, including many relative moderates and known advocates of two-state formulas like Yasser Abed Rabbo and Sari Nusseibeh, have recently publicly reconsidered advocacy of a single-state solution.
In the last two months alone both Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) have for the first time alluded publicly to the possibility of a state based on the "one man, one vote" principle. If ever conceivably adopted as an agreed outcome, such a state might still be called "Israel" for a few decades but would gradually become an Arab state with a Jewish minority - one that might eventually even open the gates to massive Palestinian refugee "return".
Even a few Israeli Jews on the far left, like former Jerusalem deputy mayor Meron Benvenisti, who briefly, during the 1990s, embraced a two-state solution when it looked probable, are now reverting to advocacy of some form of a single-state solution as the only way to end the conflict. And commentators from afar, such as Tony Judt in a recent New York Review of Books article, have felt emboldened to suggest that Jews no longer need a state of their own, and that a binational solution is a desirable outcome.
But such a single-state solution is manifestly unacceptable to the large majority of Israelis, who overwhelming favor remaining not just a Jewish state but a "Jewish, democratic state", i.e., a Zionist state based on a large Jewish majority that offers adequate minority rights for non-Jews.
This is perhaps the single expression of shared values that unites nearly all Jewish Israelis (some 80 percent of Israel's population) and Diaspora Jews. Rhetorical references in Israel to a Jewish, democratic state have increased radically in the course of the past three years, as Israelis react to their perception of a concerted Palestinian campaign to undermine and eventually "Palestinize" Israel. This sharply reinforced Israeli demand to remain "Jewish and democratic" merely amplifies the paradox of the country's slide toward demographic disaster.
The slippery slope
Israel's slippery slope toward the demise of the two-state solution is not a one-way street. Nothing seems to be irreversible in the Israel-Arab conflict.
We recall that after the Oslo DOP was signed in September 1993, many key actors and observers pronounced the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a two-state solution "irreversible." The past three years have demonstrated just how mistaken they were. Hence we must be cautious in defining that virtual red line of geography, demography, hostility, politics and lack of leadership, beyond which a two-state solution appears to be irretrievable. Certainly the mainstream on both sides has not given up on the idea.
Yet unless Israelis can convincingly demonstrate a state-level capacity to roll back the settlement movement, and Palestinians can prove a capability of stopping violence and respecting the Jewish nature of Israel, and unless the two peoples get better leadership, the two-state solution is liable to be seen in historic perspective as a very brief episode in the tragic annals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - despite the support of a broad majority of Israelis and Palestinians. Once it is off the agenda, the two sides' options will be bleak indeed.
The slippery slope is liable to, and in some ways already does, look something like this:
As chances for a two-state solution fade, Palestinians living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, now a growing majority, will call for the emergence of a single democratic state ("one man, one vote"). At some point the PLO will officially renounce its 1988 decision accepting UNGA Resolution 181, dissolve the Palestinian Authority, and revert to an open demand for a one-state solution.
An overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews will reject this option, insofar as it would constitute the end of the Zionist dream that unites them. Even most of the relatively few non-Zionist Israeli Jews (mainly from the ultra-orthodox sector) will in any case have no faith in the capacity of a Palestinian Arab majority to maintain their minority rights.
Here it must be noted that it is not easy for the PLO to dissolve the Palestinian Authority, due to vested interests - salaries for over 100,000 government and security officials, and positions of power and influence. Such a step means renewed full occupation by Israel and the launching of a decades-long new struggle that will not necessarily succeed. It will not be taken lightly.
The Israeli mainstream majority has already begun to respond to this threat, by advocating unilateral measures: withdrawal from the densely populated mountain heartland of the West Bank and from the Gaza Strip, dismantlement of the settlements there and creation of de-facto security borders. The settlers and the hard right oppose this option and threaten civil strife.
Based on their political record thus far and their overall dynamism and militancy, the settlers may succeed in deterring the majority. By the time the Israeli mainstream becomes frightened enough to seriously contemplate enforcing unilateral withdrawal - rather than merely "voting" for it in opinion polls - the settler opposition will be even stronger.
In the best case, the settlers and the hard right will agree to compromise with the mainstream and endorse a unilateral partition scheme that may involve the removal of some settlements, but will in fact seek to compel the Palestinians to acquiesce in a system of semi-autonomous enclaves surrounded by "security" fences and by the remaining settlements.
This corresponds with the ideas for limited unilateral redeployment currently being discussed by PM Sharon and others on the right: move a few settlements, fence in the Palestinian areas if possible, and declare them to be a state. Conceivably, unilateral acts in this direction will precede the first phase noted above, i.e., Palestinian renunciation of a two-state solution. Either way, Israel will remain "Jewish," but hardly democratic, while Palestinians will press their opposition to an unfair and imposed settlement that in no way approximates a viable two-state solution.
At this point, only a radical dismantling of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank mountain heartland and an open willingness to negotiate transfer to Palestinian sovereignty (within the framework of an eventual two-state solution agreed with a realistic Palestinian leadership) of the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem might still save the two-state solution. But this is still not likely to be doable politically, in view of the settlers' political influence on the dominant Israeli right. And at some point it will no longer interest the majority of Palestinians.
Under these circumstances, violence between Arabs and Jews will escalate. Because with Palestinian advocacy of a single-state solution the Green Line loses its significance for Palestinians, the violence will spread to the Arab community inside Israel. Increasingly extreme measures will be advocated and invoked by both sides.
Some Israelis, confronted with a concerted Palestinian demand for Israel to cease to be a Jewish state in order ostensibly to be a democratic one, might possibly opt for far uglier modes of struggle than those employed thus far, including forced concentration of Palestinians - perhaps including Israeli Arabs - in autonomous enclaves and/or "transfer."
The surrounding Arab countries, which succeeded in sitting out two Palestinian uprisings, or intifadas, in recent decades, will find it difficult to avoid active intervention - as will the international community. The Arabs, the US and the European Union may confront a far bloodier and more disruptive ethnic conflict on the shores of the Mediterranean than any witnessed in the past 50 years.
And there will be further damage to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people, as a large portion of the Jewish Diaspora may now seek to reduce its Jewish identity in order to disassociate itself from what gradually will be seen internationally - justifiably or not in objective terms, it will no longer matter - as an apartheid state, struggling against a legitimate liberation movement.
We are confronted, then, with a South African scenario without a South African solution: a future of strife and warfare between a minority Jewish regime and a majority Arab population - but without recourse to the solution of a single unified state. Many Israelis on the left and the right, most Diaspora Jews and indeed most supporters of Israel, though fully aware where we are heading, shudder at the use of terms like "apartheid state" and "South Africanization of the conflict."
After all, Palestinians and their supporters have been trying for decades to make Israel fit the South African scenario in ways that are markedly inaccurate and inappropriate. There are significant differences - historical, racial, political - between the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict thus far and that of apartheid South Africa.
It is, after all, the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who between 1936 and 2000 repeatedly rejected reasonable two-state partition proposals. It is Palestinian terrorism more than any other factor that has obliged Israel to pave bypass roads, build fences, set up roadblocks and require Palestinians to obtain passes in order to move from one Palestinian city to another. Besides, few South Africans ever envisaged or advocated a two-state solution for their conflict.
Yet the South African apartheid model is liable to become the closest approximation in international parlance to the reality that awaits us at the bottom of the slippery slope, if we do not very soon find a solution. Ostensibly there are a number of ways to do this.
Two options - a negotiated two-state solution and unilateral Israeli withdrawal to realistic boundaries that facilitate further negotiations - have been mentioned already, in a pessimistic vein. In order for one or both to come to pass, they appear to require either a major change of heart on the part of the ideological settlers with their messianic dedication - recognition that they themselves are leading Israel toward disaster, albeit in the name of the loftiest Zionist motives - or the emergence of an Israeli government both capable of and not deterred from initiating a major confrontation with the hard line settlers, comparable at least to the 1948 "Altalena affair."
(In June 1948, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion gave orders to open fire from the shores of Tel Aviv on the Altalena, a ship planning to unload arms for the dissident Irgun Tzvai Leumi, led by Menachem Begin. The ship was sunk and several Irgun members killed. Ben-Gurion's decision, which involved the killing of fellow Jews, is generally credited with ensuring that Begin and his followers integrated into the nascent State of Israel's army and polity rather than opposing them, thereby saving Israel from a hopeless civil war.) As we have shown, neither of these developments appears likely.
A third possibility is an internationally imposed two-state solution and/or imposed unilateral Israeli withdrawal. Only Washington could lead such an initiative. For this even to be contemplated, the United States would have to conclude that avoidance of a "South Africa on the Mediterranean" scenario was a matter of its highest self-interest.
Either the administration of the day would have to undertake to risk heavy pressure from American Jewish and right wing Christian sources, possibly backed by the Israeli government, or at least the American Jewish mainstream lobby would have to abandon its knee-jerk acquiescence in Israel's settlement policy and actively back US coercion vis-a-vis Israel on this issue.
Since neither of these possibilities appears likely in the near term either, it behooves the relevant policy planners in Washington, Brussels and Cairo to at least begin exploring alternatives of more robust conflict management: both to look for short-term measures that might help sustain the two-state solution for a while longer, in the hopes that one or more of the current parameters of deadlock will change, and to examine ways to somehow reduce the damage projected onto the region by a South Africa-style conflict.
In this regard, the international community has a vested interest in encouraging the government of Israel to continue to build a political security fence - but only if it follows the Green Line.
While a Green Line fence may not bring down the settlements beyond it, it does potentially lay an additional foundation for a viable two-state solution. The U.S. and others would also be well advised to urge Israel to dismantle settlements unilaterally. But it must also caution Sharon's or any other Israeli government not to see in such acts "political" solutions that preclude open negotiations with the PLO on all issues, territorial and otherwise.
The growing demographic-geographic threat to Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state is of strategic proportions. There is something cruelly paradoxical in its emergence at a time when most of the strategic threats Israel has faced over the years have been somewhat mitigated.
The Bush administration's post-9/11 campaign against Islamic radical terrorism and WMD proliferation in the Middle East has, at least from Israel's standpoint, reduced these threats, insofar as for the first time they are being actively targeted not only by Israel but by a very powerful ally as well. And the U.S. occupation of Iraq and destruction of its army, whatever their negative consequences, have radically reduced the threat of conventional warfare against Israel by a hostile Arab coalition.
Unlike these external strategic threats, it is within Israel's exclusive power to deal with the demographic-geographic threat, if not by rescuing the two-state solution (for which the PLO as currently configured is a problematic and perhaps doubtful partner), then by unilaterally withdrawing to a realistic political line that leaves negotiation options open.
Neither of these options, nor for that matter an imposed two-state scheme, is likely to completely end the violence and hostility; indeed, in some ways they may temporarily compound it. But they will give Jewish and democratic Israel a fighting chance to survive and prosper, however problematic its immediate neighborhood.
This is Israel's most pressing strategic challenge. Sadly, at present, it does not seem up to the task. The potential consequences are awful. Hence the approaching years should be understood as a time of national emergency for the Jewish people.
Yossi (Joseph) Alpher is co-editor of bitterlemons.org, a Palestinian-Israeli web-based dialogue, and bitterlemons-international.org, a "Middle East roundtable." He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.