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The real threat to Israel's future is the occupation, and the conflict with the Palestinians that it perpetuates. To see that, all you have to do is look at current demographic trends and poll results and then ponder the consequences for Israel. There are presently about 5.6 million Jews in "Greater Israel," (i.e., the 1967 borders plus the West Bank) and about 5.2 million Arabs (of whom nearly 1.5 million are citizens of Israel). Palestinian birth rates are substantially higher, however, which means they will be a majority of the population in "Greater Israel" in the not-too-distant future. To put it bluntly, it is Palestinian wombs and not Iranian bombs that pose the real threat.|
Netanyahu ought to be equally concerned by signs that the Zionist ideal is losing its hold within Israel itself. There are reportedly between 700,000 and one million Israeli citizens now living abroad, and emigration has outpaced immigration since 2007. According to Ian Lustick and John Mueller, only 69 percent of Israeli Jews say they want to remain in the country, and a 2007 poll reported that about one-quarter of Israelis are considering leaving, including almost half of all young people. As Lustick and Mueller note, hyping the threat from Iran may be making this problem worse, especially among the most highly educated (and thus most mobile) Israelis. Israeli society is also becoming more polarized -- which is one reason Netanyahu had such trouble forming a governing coalition -- with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox at odds with secular Israelis, to include the more recent immigrants that form the core of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's support.
So what are Israel's options? One alternative would be to make the West Bank and Gaza part of Israel, but allow the Palestinians who live there to have full political rights, thereby creating a binational liberal democracy. This idea has been promoted by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians, but the objections to it are compelling. It would mean abandoning the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, which makes it anathema to almost all Israeli Jews, who want to live in a Jewish state. The practical obstacles to this outcome are equally daunting, and binational states do not have an encouraging track record. If the choice were between this option and a genuine two-state solution, there can be little doubt about which Netanyahu would prefer.
A second option would be for Israel to retain the West Bank and expel the Palestinians by force, there preserving its Jewish character through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. A few Israeli extremists have proposed something akin to this, but to expel millions of Palestinians in this fashion would be a crime against humanity. The Palestinians would surely resist being driven from their homes, and such a heinous act would take place in full view of a horrified world and damage Israel's reputation far more than the recent carnage in Gaza did. No true friend of Israel could support such a course of action, and one hopes that Netanyahu has the good sense to recognize that it would be a tragic mistake to go down this road.
The only other option to a genuine two-state solution is some form of apartheid, in which the Palestinians are granted limited autonomy in some disconnected and economically crippled enclaves whose borders, airspace, and aquifers are controlled by Israel. The Palestinians' fate, in other words, would remain in Israel's hands, even if some modest efforts were made to improve their living conditions. This outcome seems to be what Netanyahu has in mind, but it is not a viable long-term solution either. The Palestinians are not going to accept being permanent vassals -- especially once they are a majority in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean -- and they will continue to demand either a viable state of their own or full political rights within Israel. Over time, this option is going to be an increasingly difficult around the world, and especially in the West.
That is why former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Ha'aretz in 2008, "if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses," Israel will face "a South-African style struggle for voting rights." Once that happened, he warned, "the state of Israel is finished." Despite his long career as a Likud Party stalwart, Olmert finally recognized that if the two-state solution becomes impossible, Israel will be stuck defending a political order that is anathema to prevailing Western and American values. Although lots of other democracies have behaved abominably towards minorities in the past, such behavior is not legitimate in the 21st century. Americans favor self-determination and our own political traditions emphasize liberal values and the virtues of a melting-pot society. Even a lobbying group as powerful as AIPAC will find it hard to defend Israeli apartheid.
A two-state solution is not an ideal outcome; it is merely the best available alternative. If Netanyahu wants to safeguard Israel's future, therefore, he would not spend his time inventing new conditions and doing his best to make the peace process a charade. Instead, he would get on the phone to the White House and urge them to get moving as soon as possible to establish a viable Palestinian state, and he'd ask Obama to commit the resources necessary to make it work. He'd also be on the phone to Abraham Foxman of the ADL, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, and Howard Kohr of AIPAC, urging them to pressure the White House and especially Congress to broker a two-state solution before it's too late. While he's at it, he'd denounce false friends like the Reverend John Hagee of Christians United for Israel and he'd invite Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street to come to Jerusalem and help him map out a strategy to turn the Titanic around before it hits the approaching iceberg.
There would still be lots of hard bargaining to do, of course, and Netanyahu would have to make sure that a final-status agreement protected Israel's legitimate security concerns. But by acting in this way, Netanyahu would be helping preserve Israel's future instead of putting it in jeopardy.
If Netanayahu can't figure this out, then Barack Obama and George Mitchell are going to have to sit him down and explain the situation to him. And if they do, one can only hope that Israel's supporters here in the United States abandon their usual modus operandi and back Obama and Mitchell up. If they don't, they may someday have to explain to their grandchildren why they watched Israel drive itself off a cliff and did nothing to stop it.