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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007

Israel's ticking time bomb


LONDON — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was just back from the Annapolis summit where U.S. President George W. Bush tried to reboot the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. More importantly, last week was also the 60th anniversary of the United Nations vote that divided British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. That promised Arab state still doesn't exist, of course, but if the peace talks fail to produce it in the end, Olmert told the newspaper Ha'Aretz, then Israel is "finished."

"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses," Olmert said, "and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights for the Palestinians in the (occupied) territories, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished. The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us, because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents."

It was an extraordinary thing for a rightwing Israeli politician to say: Israelis usually erupt in fury if anybody suggests a comparison between their country and apartheid-era South Africa. However, Olmert wasn't talking about the country as it is now — seven million people, of whom about five and a half million are Jews — but about the country that would exist if the peace talks fail definitively and the four million Palestinians in the occupied territories remain under Israeli control indefinitely.

They have already been under Israeli military rule for 40 years, and 15 years of on-and-off peace negotiations have made little progress toward a Palestinian state. The Arab population both within Israel and in the occupied territories is growing much faster than the Jewish population, even counting Jewish immigration. Some time soon, there will be more Palestinians than Jews within the borders of the former British mandate of Palestine (between the Jordan River and the sea) for the first time since the war of 1948-49.

Most of the Palestinians who lived within what is now Israel fled or were driven out during the 1948-49 war, and in order to ensure that the new state had an overwhelming Jewish majority Israel never let them return. Subsequent Jewish immigration, combined with the fact that many of the Palestinians fled beyond the borders of the old British mandate, meant that Jews were still a large majority overall even when Israel conquered all the remaining lands of former Palestine in the 1967 war. For a long time, the "demographic question" did not trouble Israelis much.

There were still far fewer Palestinians in the late 1980s, when Yasser Arafat persuaded the Palestine Liberation Organization to adopt the goal of a Palestinian state within the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem (which is considerably less than it was given under the U.N. partition plan of 1947). That led to the era of the "peace process," but for various reasons (and with much blame on both sides ) the negotiations never succeeded.

Now the Palestinians are within sight of becoming a majority in the whole of the territory between the Jordan and the sea, and some of them are starting to abandon that compromise goal. Let us have a single democratic state in all of these lands, they say, and we don't mind if Israel never returns to its 1967 borders.

We will just demand our equal democratic rights within this larger country that includes all the land now controlled by Israel, and our votes will change Israel from a "Jewish democracy" to a multiethnic, post-Zionist democratic state. (Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has already adopted this strategy.)

That is the specter that haunts Ehud Olmert and every other thinking Israeli. If you cannot make the two-state solution work, then you get the one-state solution, and Palestinians will soon be a majority within the borders of that single state.

Israel has the military power to deny the vote to Palestinians in the "occupied territories" indefinitely, but in that case it will look more and more like apartheid-era South Africa, with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as its Bantustans. Even its American supporters will turn away in the end, and it will, as Olmert put it, be "finished."

That would not happen next year, or even in five or 10 years, but the possibility is now permanently on the table. Even on the right, many Israelis are concluding that a Palestinian state is essential to the long-term survival of a Jewish state — but many others still think that a two-state deal is either undesirable or impossible, and hope that the current round of peace talks fails.

They will probably not be disappointed, for Olmert's Cabinet would collapse if he made any major concessions on Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees in the talks. His negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas, only controls half of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Eighty-three percent of Israelis think there will be no peace deal in the next year, and expectations among Palestinians are even lower. But the question is as valid as ever: "If not now, when?"

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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