PERRY & GOLDENBERG: Palestinians express doubts over two-state future December 13, 2010

by Dan Perry and Tia Goldenberg  -  The Washington Post -  12 December 2010

JERUSALEM — Conventional wisdom on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has long held that Israel should relinquish most of the lands it occupied in 1967 in favor of a Palestinian state – the “two-state solution” that much of the world has supported for years.

But the utter lack of progress in peace talks and continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank has many people warning that Israel might instead be headed toward a one-state reality, with a permanent occupation of the West Bank and a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority – unless, perhaps, the world forces it to give the Palestinians the right to vote.

“If Israel continues with these measures that it is employing today, the possibility of a two-state solution becomes very slim, if any,” Mohammed Ishtayeh, a senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Sunday. “In the long run Israel is in the losing track. The Israeli leadership today is very shortsighted.”

The startling departure from the widely accepted notion of Israel as the stronger side is increasingly common and a function of demographics: In the contiguous land mass formed by Israel proper and the areas the Palestinians want for their state, Arabs have probably caught up to the Jews numerically, and they have the higher birthrate. Viewed through this prism, it is in Israel’s vital interest – hardly a “concession” – to seek partition.

Ishtayeh said the “two-state solution is a win-win situation” for both sides, and warned: “If Israel loses this opportunity then you are going into the ‘South Africanization’ of the Palestinian question” – a situation in which a minority rules over a disenfranchised majority, and that majority demands equal rights in a shared state.

Officially, both sides remain committed to the U.S.-led effort, which began in September, to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state within a year.

But those talks ran aground three weeks after they began, when the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended a 10-month freeze on new Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, prompting a Palestinian walk out. The Obama administration last week announced it was ending two months of efforts to coax Israel into resuming the freeze.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev insisted the 120 West Bank settlements – home to 300,000 people – only encompassed a small part of West Bank territory and noted that Israel pulled some 8,000 settlers out of Gaza in 2005. “Israel is ready for a two-state solution and we don’t believe that the limited building that has been going on in any way undermines that goal,” he said.

In a speech Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed to “push the parties to grapple with the core issues” and said the establishment of a Palestinian state through negotiations is “inevitable.”

Not everyone here would agree with that assessment. The gaps between Netanyahu and Abbas on questions like sharing Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees seem very far apart, and the Palestinians have failed to embrace past offers from far more accommodating Israeli leaderships.

The Palestinians are already running a parallel track, lobbying nations to recognize a Palestinian state in the entire West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem – without Israeli acquiescence.

What if that effort fails? Abbas himself has spoken of resigning, declaring the Palestinian Authority – an autonomy government set up as an interim phase in the 1990s – defunct.

“It is a serious threat, maybe the only serious threat and the only real weapon the Palestinians have,” said Yossi Beilin, a veteran peace negotiator and former senior Israeli Cabinet minister. “Then the responsibility is back with Israel.”

Meanwhile, Israel is creating facts on the ground with the construction of hundreds of new housing units in the West Bank. Each additional settler, critics warn, deepens an already great intertwining of the two peoples and will make it more difficult to carve out a separate Palestine

“There is a right-wing government that refuses to halt settlement construction, encourages Jews to move to the West Bank, and is leading us to an irreversible situation,” said Arnon Soffer, a professor emeritus of geostrategy at the University of Haifa.

Soffer has long warned the combined population of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza would eventually tilt in favor of an Arab majority, and official statistics from both sides seem to bear out his predictions.

Israel in September said its population was 7.6 million, which includes 5.8 million Jews, a figure which counts the 300,000 West Bank settlers, and 1.6 million Arabs. The Palestinian Bureau of Statistics says the West Bank has 2.5 million Palestinians and the Gaza Strip 1.5 million. That means the entire area has a roughly similar number of Jews and Arabs – just under 6 million each.

But the Arab birth rate is significantly higher. According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the average Jewish woman had 2.9 children, compared to 3.73 for Muslim women. According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the fertility rate among all Palestinian women was 4.6 births – much higher than Israel’s, yet in decline.

Some in Israel say that they have gained some “demographic time” by unilaterally pulling troops and settlers out of Gaza, which is now ruled by the Hamas militant group. Some members of the Israeli right have even embraced the “one state” idea, believing that without control of Gaza, Israel still might be able to absorb the West Bank’s 2.5 million Palestinians.

They would be willing to increase the already large Arab minority because beyond Israel’s biblical ties to the West Bank, security hawks fear the loss of the territory’s strategic highland. It surrounds Jerusalem on three sides and reaches within 20 miles (30 kilometers) of Tel Aviv.

Others say the demographic threat is exaggerated because Arab population figures are inaccurate.

“When people say that the demographic threat necessitates a separation, my reply is that the lesser danger, the lesser evil, is a single state in which there are equal rights for all citizens,” Israeli speaker of parliament Reuven Rivlin, who is from Netanyahu’s rightist Likud party, told the Israeli daily Haaretz in July.

Another Likud lawmaker, Tzipi Hotovely, has been floating ideas about gradual annexation of territory and the offering of citizenship only to certain Palestinians who would have to have “equal obligations” and accept Israel as a “Jewish state.”

None of that will work, Beilin predicted. At the last minute, he said, any “Zionist” Israeli leader would simply withdraw unilaterally from much of the West Bank.

And what of the Palestinians?

“Nobody will ask them,” Beilin said.

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