Will Israel Live to 100?

Don't be seduced by the recent hopeful signs: in the long run the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain a problem without a solution

To the PLO's efforts to rein in its militants and Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners should be added the most heartening recent development in Israeli-Palestinian relations: forces on both sides now wish their own leader dead. That's probably the best evidence that Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, despite previous evidence to the contrary (don't forget that the Israeli prime minister connived in the massacre of Palestinian refugees and that the Palestinian president wrote a dissertation denying the Holocaust), now really do seek peace. Sadly, though, the very circumstances that have pushed both sides toward accommodation militate against it. Indeed, they point toward catastrophe.

The Palestinian-Zionist contest is rooted in and remains vexed by land and demographics. The founders of Zionism may have enunciated the strikingly obtuse slogan "A land without people for a people without land," but in fact they fully grasped that making an Arab land into a Jewish state required upending demographic reality by implanting a huge foreign population and, in the parlance of the time, "transferring"—voluntarily if possible, forcibly if necessary—large numbers of Palestine's indigenous inhabitants from those areas intended for Jewish statehood. For their part, the Palestinians rejected proposals in 1937 (the Peel Commission report) and 1947 (UN Resolution 181—which, Palestinians protested, designated as Jewish a state that contained 500,000 Jews but fully 400,000 Arabs) to divide the land between Arab and Jew. The rejection of any Jewish state in Palestine defined the Palestinians' national movement from its inception, in the 1920s, until at least the early 1990s (many Israelis believe, with some justification, that the same rejectionism fuels that movement to this day). And the "basic tenet of Palestinism," say Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal in their definitive and sympathetic history of the Palestinians, continues to be the "right of return" for those 700,000 Palestinians displaced from Israeli territory in 1948 and their descendants (a population that may now number as many as five million)—which if exercised would mean the end of a Jewish majority in Israel.

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.

But even assuming that a comprehensive settlement could be reached, Israel's long-term prospects are bleak. The late Faisal Husseini, a moderate PLO official and a scion of one of Arab Jerusalem's great families, said, "I worry about today. But the Israelis should worry about the future." Today the Palestinian cause is fragmented, and its people are exhausted. Israel, on the other hand, negotiates from a position of unassailable military strength. But the Zionist enterprise has never been able to transcend the demographic and geographic realities that have haunted it from its inception. Regardless of the moral opprobrium one might attach to either party, the seeds of the all-but-unsolvable Palestinian-refugee problem were sown when Israel recognized in 1948 that it couldn't function with a vast and hostile Palestinian population (indeed, even the relatively small number of Palestinians who remained in Israel after the war for independence lived under military rule until 1966). Today Israeli Arabs (that is, Palestinians living within Israel's pre-1967 borders and in East Jerusalem) have one of the highest population-growth rates in the world (among Israeli Arabs in the Negev, specifically, it is the highest), and they now make up about 20 percent of Israel's population; demographers project that they'll compose nearly a quarter of the population by 2020, and as much as 30 percent by 2050. (These figures don't count the approximately 150,000 Palestinian noncitizens, drawn to Israel largely by the prospect of higher-paying jobs, who live there illegally.) Such large antagonistic minorities have historically engendered conflict and calls for binationalism, which would further weaken the Jewish state.

More troublesome still, a future Palestinian state hemmed in between the Green Line and the Jordan and in the Gaza Strip will face astronomical population growth (the population in Gaza now doubles every generation, and an enormous influx of former refugees now living throughout the Arab world—mostly in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon—is almost certain), scarce water, and dire economic conditions. (The obvious outlet for Palestinian labor—Israel—will perforce be tightly closed; otherwise the sort of creeping immigration the United States has experienced from Mexico would swamp Israel, thereby subverting efforts to maintain a Jewish state.) A host of realistic Israeli observers, including Israel's national security adviser, General Giora Eiland, doubt that the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan contains enough land and resources to sustain two viable sovereign states. In few places in the world do conditions more demand that two peoples develop a symbiotic relationship; in no other place are the chances of building such a relationship more remote.

Whatever accommodation is made now, it seems inevitable that given the future that confronts a Palestinian state, its expansionist energies will be directed toward Israel (and, to a lesser extent, Jordan). At that point Palestinian leaders seeking further territorial revision will no doubt argue, correctly, that the Green Line was a cease-fire line, not an international boundary; that that line itself awards Israel territory won in war; and that it in no way resembles the boundaries of the UN partition resolution upon which the Jewish state was founded. David Ben-Gurion always urged his people to accept even the smallest Jewish state, arguing that it would serve as a springboard for future expansion. Palestine, he saw, would be taken over in stages. Today Israelis understandably fear that either by design or merely in response to exigencies it may be taken back in the same piecemeal fashion.

At some level most perceptive Israelis seem to grasp these future existential dangers. In fact, in conversations with Israelis on the left and the (moderate) right in academe, the military, the government, and the security services, I've been struck by their grim declarations that they as a people aren't going anywhere, but also by their foreboding about the country their children will live in. Most of all, though, I've been struck by the frequency with which these men and women—patriots all—have wistfully said, "We should have taken Uganda" (which Britain offered to the Zionist leadership in 1903). History shows that many problems have no solution—a fact all but unfathomable to Americans. Nevertheless, the century-long Palestinian-Zionist conflict is a story of two peoples, each with reasonable claims to the same piece of earth; and nearly every aspect of that story suggests that in the end—and to the detriment of those peoples, their region, and perhaps the entire world—their aspirations are not amenable to compromise.