‘Hello, I’m Israeli-Palestinian’

Ali Jarbawi has long seen the creation of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, as the best solution to the Middle East conflict. But the professor of political science from Bir Zeit university in the West Bank is not sure any more.

Jarbawi believes the two-state solution is on the verge of extinction, leaving Israelis and Palestinians facing a new reality – the prospect of life in a single binational state.

Jewish settlements built in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have entangled the people, making a solution based on two states look increasingly unlikely. Now, says Jarbawi, the separation barrier Israel is building deep inside the West Bank and which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to turn into a boundary between Israelis and Palestinians is final evidence that Israel is not interested in allowing the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

“Most Palestinians prefer the idea of separation because they want their own state,” Jarbawi told IPS. “But Sharon’s idea of a two-state solution is to squeeze us into cantons in the West Bank. Given the choice between cantonisation and a one-state solution, Palestinians will go for the latter. We are at the edge of the two-state solution closing down.”

The apparent collapse of yet another U.S. peace initiative in the Middle East, the seemingly unending Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, and the approach of demographic parity between Jews and Arabs living in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea have all raised questions about the future and longevity of the two-state solution. These questions are being raised among Palestinians and Israelis, and on the pages of the world’s leading newspapers and journals.

Jarbawi is not the only Palestinian warning about the imminent death of the two-state solution, which has long been supported by the international community as the preferred model for ending the conflict. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Korei cautioned recently that if Sharon took unilateral steps that included absorbing large chunks of the West Bank into Israel, the Palestinians would abandon their demand for their own, separate state and call for a single state with Israelis.

Pointing to Israel’s settlement policy and the West Bank separation barrier, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat warned in late January that “time is running out for the two-state solution.”

Some in Israel have dismissed these comments as a tactical ploy by Palestinian leaders to scare Israeli Jews. The threat: if Israelis do not agree to the creation of a Palestinian state, then higher Palestinian birth rates will ensure that in a decade Jews will be a minority in the area west of the Jordan River. There are currently 5.2 million Jews living in Israel, and 3.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and a further 1.2 million Arabs who are citizens in Israel.

The Israeli left has long warned of what it calls the “demographic threat,” arguing that if settlement construction does not cease and Israel fails to relinquish its control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it will ultimately slide into an apartheid-like reality.

Israel, they contend, might survive for some time, but it will cease to be a democracy, and like South Africa will become increasingly isolated and will ultimately crumble. The death of the two-state solution, therefore, effectively means the death of the Jewish state.

Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo peace accords and now of the Geneva accord – an unofficial peace plan unveiled last year that is based on the idea of two states – has warned that his latest plan is “perhaps the last chance for a fair division of the land between Jews and Palestinians before the creation of a Palestinian majority west of Jordan that will effectively make the country binational.”

But this thinking has now also begun to penetrate right-wing ranks in Israel. Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the ruling centre-right Likud party said in a recent interview that “more and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution.”

Olmert said this meant a change from a struggle against occupation as they see it to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. “That is of course a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle – and ultimately a much more powerful one,” he said. “For us it would mean the end of the Jewish state.”

Some on the far right in Israel propose transferring Palestinians to Jordan, but they are a small minority. Jewish settler leaders, not unaware of demographics, have been suggesting various solutions, including giving Palestinians voting rights in Jordan.

That is a non-starter, given Palestinian demands for self-determination, Jordan’s fear that it could become a Palestinian state – 60 percent of Jordanians are Palestinian – and the international community’s backing for an independent Palestinian state.

Some commentators have suggested that the demographic fear is now driving Sharon’s latest plan announced last week to unilaterally dismantle Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

In making his decision, Sharon might have read a recent poll that indicated Israeli Jews’ fear of a binational scenario. The survey conducted at Tel Aviv University found that 67 percent of respondents feared a binational reality. Seventy-eight percent of Jews said they favoured a two-state solution; only 6 percent said they support a binational state.

Not surprisingly, support for a binational state among Palestinians is higher, at around 30 percent. With demography on their side – Palestinian birth rates are higher than Jewish ones – they would ultimately become a majority in a single state.

Arafat is also on record saying that “the womb of the Arab woman is my best weapon.” Some Israelis point to this as proof that he has never been committed to the idea of two states.

Some Palestinian intellectuals and Israelis on the far left actually espouse a one-state solution, arguing it is preferable to separation. With the two peoples merged into a single entity, they contend, many of the vexing problems that now make the conflict seemingly insoluble would melt away. There would be no reason to argue over delineation of borders, or over control of Jerusalem, and it would not even be necessary to remove settlements.

This is not Ali Jerbawi’s preferred route to statehood and to solving the conflict. Since Israelis would not agree to a single state, he says. It would mean an “apartheid-like struggle” in which Palestinians substitute their demand for national self-determination with a demand for one-person-one-vote in a single state. “This type of struggle will take many years,” he says. “We want to end Palestinian suffering.”

But in the absence of Israeli agreement to the creation of a viable Palestinian state – in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank – he is prepared to go the one- state route. “If that happens, then we will say to the Israelis, ‘We will meet you in 10 to 15 years time with the demand for one-person-one vote in a single state’.”