All Fall Down: The Uncertain Future of the Only Solution for Israel and Palestine

As the world's only Jewish country celebrates its 65th anniversary, its survival still depends on one outcome: two viable states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

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Men walk past Israeli flags raised in preparation for Israel's Independence Day in Tel Aviv April 26, 2009. Israel marked its 61st Independence Day, according to the Hebrew calendar, on April 29th of that year. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)

"There's a fear down here we can't forget hasn't got a name just yet
Always awake, always around singing ashes to ashes all fall down."

--The Grateful Dead, "In the Dark"

Since its birth as a state 65 years ago, Israel has faced one existential challenge after another: hot wars, cold wars, terrorism, and rejectionism; early near-death experiences for the fragile and unlikely Jewish state, surrounded by hostile neighbors; the persistent equation of its very rationale as a state -- Zionism -- with racism and imperialism; and beneath this, the ongoing real racism that never seems to die, a dark form of intolerance that repeatedly rises like the soul of Lord Voldemort: anti-Semitism.

As a state still heavily shaped by the traumatic circumstances of its birth, out of the ashes of the Holocaust; as a people who have come so close historically to annihilation, Israel has a natural and understandable proclivity to feel insecure and to fear the worst. When a state has fought seven wars in 65 years, and a roughly equal number of other military conflicts, it has reason to feel that its survival is constantly on the line, and to spend, tax, draft, and innovate heavily and relentlessly to defend itself. Against the long odds of these formidable challenges, Israel's development ranks by any measure as one of the most remarkable achievements of any post-World War II nation. It is a story not merely of survival but of booming success: the entrenchment of vigorous democratic institutions and freedoms, the flowering of the desert, cutting-edge scientific and technological inventions, and rapid economic development that has propelled this embattled nation of immigrants into the ranks of the world's rich, highly industrialized democracies. Today, Israel ranks 16th On the United Nations' Human Development Index.

But the dominant mood in Israel today is anxiety more than celebration. The principal source of this anxiety is not the ongoing deep internal divisions in what has long been, and has increasingly become, a deeply divided society. Neither is it the gathering international campaign, gaining momentum particularly in Europe, to "boycott, sanction, and divest" from Israel. The root of this anxiety remains what it has always been: an abiding sense of insecurity. Despite the astonishing leaps in Israel's military power and technology (as symbolized by the success of its "Iron Dome" air defense system in shooting down an estimated 90 percent of the rockets launched from Gaza last year against Israeli civilians), Israel cannot relax. At the moment it is not at war, but it is also not at peace. Much deadlier and more accurate weapons lie in the vast arsenals of a Syrian state that is slowly disintegrating in a civil war. Hence the recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian weapons caches that were apparently about to be shipped across the border in Lebanon to Hezbollah.

The Syrian crisis is only a small fragment of a new security reality that confronts the state of Israel. Throughout the Arab world, longstanding pillars of political stability are falling down. As many Israeli strategists see it, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over in Egypt and Gaza, has the upper hand in Tunisia, and could still gain power in Libya, or even possibly in Jordan, where the massive flow of refugees from Syria is badly straining the economy and social order. Or even more radical Islamist forces could conquer power in some places (including potentially Yemen). The Gulf States are nervous. The region is in crisis.And then there lurks what most Israelis regard as the ultimate existential challenge to their national security: the Iranian regime's intense pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. That is a line that Israel's political and military leaders feel they cannot allow this Iranian regime to cross. And President Obama himself, who is hardly eager for any more American military actions abroad, declared, in an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, "... when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say."

Strangely, however, the one area of relative, or at least transitory, calm in the region is the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Since the second Palestinian Intifada ended around 2005, there has been no broad new violent uprising in the West Bank. Rather, there has been of late relative peace in the West Bank and something new and potentially game changing: Palestinian development. The past six years of government under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been a period of state-building and economic growth unlike anything the Palestinians have seen since the creation of Israel, with economic growth averaging 11 percent in 2010 and 2011 (though slowing to about half that since). The signs of this development are particularly evident in the seat of the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank, Ramallah.

Palestinians have begun to taste what peace and cooperation could bring; but they have a bitter taste in their mouths, meanwhile. This is the continuing humiliation and injustice of an Israeli occupation that has swallowed up a steadily increasing amount of land for Israeli settlements and carved up the West Bank into fragmented pieces separated by 10-foot high concrete blast walls, topped by razor wire, and dotted relentlessly by prison-like watchtowers and military checkpoints. The entire look and feel of this presence exudes the inescapable character of occupation as domination and control. Until it is ended, there cannot be peace, and therefore Israel cannot ever feel really secure. That is the great paradox of the occupation.

Many Israelis feel this is a reason to worry about the long term, but not the present. With the region in turmoil, with peace treaties shaky, with Iran seeking the bomb, with everything that seemed stable at risk of falling down, this is hardly the time to take chances for peace, they say. And so, in the recent Israeli election, the existential question of war, peace, and occupation did not much figure in the campaign.

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.