Yet there are two other elements to the current conundrum that deeply worry many Israelis, and even some current and former leaders of politics and government. One is their mounting concern about what the occupation is doing not simply to Palestinians but also to Israelis -- that the country is losing part of its soul in the dehumanizing task of dominating and controlling another people for decades on end. For more than 45 years, well over two-thirds of Israel's existence as a state, it has occupied the West Bank. Even as governing authority over economic and social matters has been transferred to the Palestinian Authority over a portion of the territory, and even as security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials has notably improved, the occupation has become institutionalized, the settlements have relentlessly expanded, and a sense of despair has settled into populations on both sides of the divide. As we approach the half-century mark in occupation, with a steady expansion in settlements deep into the West Bank that have the look, feel and even intention of permanence, it becomes increasingly difficult to regard the phenomenon as a temporary reality waiting for a lasting resolution.
This raises the second concern, what many feel is the most acute existential threat to Israel's survival as a Jewish state. For at least two decades now, thoughtful Israelis have worried that Israel cannot be a democracy, a Jewish State, and Greater Israel, for a simple reason. They could see that the demographic trends would eventually produce an Arab population majority in the combined territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That was twenty years ago. Now, "eventually" has arrived. There are roughly 6 million Jewish citizens of Israel. If we combine Israeli Arab citizens (about 1.6 million, or slightly over 20 percent of all Israelis) and the Palestinian populations in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem (4.4 million), the total is now about the same as the Jewish population (or even slightly higher). And the Arab population growth rate is higher (in fact, among Israeli Arabs, significantly so). In a single bi-national state, Arabs would vote -- democratically -- to eliminate the Jewish character of the state. This is why a growing number of West Bank Palestinians, particularly youth and intellectuals, are now calling for a single unitary state. And it is why President Obama declared in Israel on March 21, "Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine."
After thousands of years of Jews being a minority and frequently persecuted in many parts of the world, and after a Holocaust in the last century that killed 6 million Jews, it is hard to imagine that the Jewish people of Israel would give up having a state of their own, where they constitute a substantial majority and can protect themselves from the many threats that are still around them. Thus, the choice that confronts Israel with increasing urgency is democracy or indefinite occupation.
Even many moderate and pragmatic Palestinians are growing weary with the daily humiliations and limitations of the occupation. If they judge that a two-state solution cannot be achieved, or that what is being offered as a "state" is so fragmented and feeble that it is not viable, then Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestine Liberation Organization could hand back to Israel the responsibility for governing all of the West Bank and demand the creation of a single unitary state. That is one of two ultimate, drastic cards they believe they have to play. The other is to ask the International Criminal Court to indict Israeli officials. Either move would destroy the fragile hopes that remain for a negotiated two-state solution. This is why many pragmatic Israeli leaders of the center and even center-right feel that time is running out for a two-state solution, and that this issue, above all others, represents the biggest threat to the survival of Israel as a Jewish state.
Many professionals in the State Department and the U.S. foreign-policy community feel sorry for Secretary of State John Kerry. In launching immediately into the forbidden desert of the "Middle East Peace Process" they feel he has taken on a doomed mission--that he will fail as every other American Secretary of State has failed to settle this insoluble problem, this "mother of all conflicts." Looking at the turmoil throughout the Arab world, the polarization in Egypt, the chaos in Syria, the massive, destabilizing refugee flows into Jordan and other neighboring states, the looming conflict with Iran, the recent resignation of the Fayyad government, the deadlock between Hamas ruling in Gaza and the PLO ruling in the West Bank, they wonder what Kerry must be thinking -- or smoking.
But here is what he could have in view: There is no escaping the inextricable link between American security and two other objectives -- the security of Israel and a stable peace in the region. If the two-state solution falls off the table, the Palestinians hand back governing authority to Israel, and pressure mounts from Palestinians, Arab Countries, and around the world for a one-state solution, while Hamas grows more powerful in Gaza and the West Bank (as it likely would), the resulting destabilization would diffuse to other parts of the Middle East, strengthening radical forces and undermining a wide range of U.S. interests.
Moreover, a time of radical reshaping of the parameters of Middle East stability is a time of new possibilities, new calculations, and new urgency for peace. The ground is rapidly shifting. A regional window of opportunity has opened with the latest Arab Peace Initiative, which now accepts the idea of territorial land swaps and reiterates the offer of a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict if Israel negotiates peace with the Palestinians. The occupation is not sustainable in its current form. Time is running out for a two-state solution. And the United States is the only actor with the power and credibility on all sides to mediate it, and inevitably, guarantee it in security terms. There is no greater imperative for American interests in the Middle East and no higher act of friendship that the United States can perform for Israel than to help it find a way to a two-state solution before the option disappears.