Owing to the flight of those refugees and to the mass immigration of Jews in the late 1940s and the 1950s, Palestinians at first
made up a small minority of the Jewish state's total population. But, of course, since the June 1967 war Israel has occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—land overwhelmingly inhabited by Palestinians. And even more important in the long run, Yasir Arafat's adage that the Palestinians' best weapon is the womb has proved true. The birth rate in the occupied territories is far higher than Israel's. Jews will very soon become a minority in the lands they occupy or rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean (by some calculations this has already happened), and some demographers forecast that in fifteen years they will make up as little as 42 percent of the population in this area. For decades Israelis debated the wisdom of annexing the territories, but in just five years a consensus has emerged within the Israeli political, military, and intelligence communities that the country must withdraw from much of, most of, or essentially all of the territories (those distinctions are of course a crucial issue for the Palestinians), lest Israeli Jews be forced to choose between living in a democracy and living in a Jewish state: Palestinians will demand not their own state but a single binational state, based on the principle of one man, one vote. And at that point, Israel's deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has said despairingly, "we will lose everything."
Fearing that more and more Palestinians believe time is on their side, and that they will thus be tempted by the "one-state solution," the Sharon government pushed for unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (where Palestinians outnumber Jews 150 to one) and the building of the security fence to separate and insulate the Jewish state from the Palestinians (although it's not now routed along the Green Line, the fence would divide nearly all West Bank Palestinians from Israel). The fence has been rightly touted as an anti-terrorism barrier, but in fact it was conceived before the Palestinians' suicide-bombing campaign, as a means of detaching Israel politically and economically from the growing and impoverished Palestinian population; indeed, an Israeli geographer who has intensely studied the political implications of Palestinian population growth, Arnon Soffer, has described the fence as "a last desperate attempt to save the state of Israel." (Soffer advocates ceding East Jerusalem as well as predominantly Arab areas within Israel's pre-1967 borders to help defuse the demographic time bomb.)
Sharon's unilateral efforts at disengagement—which would have preserved more Jewish settlements and granted the Palestinians less territory than do existing peace plans, and which would have created a separate but hardly sovereign Palestinian entity composed of detached cantons—have spurred Abbas to enter negotiations. Better to parley, the Palestinian leadership no doubt reasoned, than be forced to accede to the Israeli-imposed facts on the ground. In that case, why can't we expect that in fact the political problems created by demographics and land may lead to a binding and mutually satisfactory peace? First and most obviously, the gap between what Palestinian and Israeli leaders will agree to and what their constituencies will abide by is huge. Every sensible person on the left or the right concurs on the necessary steps, but the Israeli political system and national temperament seem to make those steps impossible to take. After nearly forty years of settlement building on the West Bank, for instance, those settlements close to the Green Line may have roots too deep and may well be too integral to the daily life of too many Israelis to be forsaken—perhaps by design. This is nothing, of course, compared with the obstacles that Palestinian moderates face. Groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, which are committed to Israel's destruction, are hardly on the fringe. And Palestinians seem to demand the right of return as adamantly as Israelis oppose it: 98.7 percent of refugees surveyed in 2001 dismissed compensation in place of return. Among nonrefugees polled the figure was 93.1 percent. Given that Abbas has promised to submit a "final status" agreement to a plebiscite of Palestinians in the occupied territories and throughout the Arab world (a promise all but ignored in the Western press), the chances of a real peace (as opposed to what the Palestinians call a hudna—a tactical truce) appear to be slim.