Robert Wright
The New York Times (Blog)
September 28, 2010 - 12:00am

This week’s bad news from the West Bank — the resumption of settlement construction after a 10-month moratorium, just as a new round of peace talks had gotten underway — didn’t much dampen optimism among seasoned Middle East watchers.

That’s because there wasn’t much optimism to dampen. For the past few years, more and more people who follow these things have been saying that the perennial goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — a two-state solution — will never be reached in any event.

These experts fall into two camps.

The more upbeat, while pessimistic about a two-state solution, hold out hope for a “one-state solution”: Israel gains uncontested possession of the West Bank and Gaza but gives Palestinians who live there the vote, and Israel evolves from a Jewish state into a stable and peaceful secular state.

People in the other camp — the pure, 100-percent pessimists — say that even if such a thing could work, even if a democracy with about as many Arabs as Jews could function, it isn’t going to happen; most Israelis would never admit a large and growing Arab population to the electorate.

But there’s a third possibility that nobody ever talks about. Pursuing a one-state solution could actually lead to a two-state solution. Instead of following the current road map to a Palestinian state, maybe we can get there by detour.

One key to working up enthusiasm for this detour is to get clear on the nature of the roadblock.

It’s common to say that Israel’s intransigence on the settlements issue reflects the growing strength of the right, especially the religious fundamentalists who do much of the settling. But at least as big a problem as the zeal of the radicals is the apathy of the moderates.

A recent Time magazine cover story — “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace” — explained why many Israelis just don’t think a peace deal is all that important: they’ve already got peace. Ever since Israel built its security wall, they’ve been safe from suicide bombers, and homemade rockets from Gaza can’t reach them. They’re prosperous to boot. What’s not to like?

So long as this attitude prevails, the far right will have veto power over policy in the occupied territory. For a peace deal to happen, Israel’s centrists need to get jarred out of their indifference. Someone needs to scare these people.

There’s a way for Palestinians to do that — and not the usual way, with bombs and rockets. Quite the opposite.

If Palestinians want to strike fear into the hearts of Israelis they should (a) give up on violence as a tool of persuasion; (b) give up on the current round of negotiations; and (c) start holding demonstrations in which they ask for only one thing: the right to vote. Their argument would be simple: They live under Israeli rule, and Israel is a democracy, so why aren’t they part of it?

A truly peaceful movement with such elemental aspirations — think of Martin Luther King or Gandhi — would gain immediate international support. In Europe and the United States, leftists would agitate in growing numbers for economic and political pressure on Israel.

In 2002, some Harvard students urged the university to purge investments in Israel from its portfolio, and the president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, suggested that the disinvestment movement was anti-Semitic. This time there would be a lot more students, and no university president would call them anti-Semitic. All they’d be saying is that if Israel isn’t going to give up the occupied territories — and, let’s face it, the current government isn’t exactly in headlong pursuit of that goal — it should give Arabs living there the same rights it gives Jews living there.

As momentum grew — more Palestinians marching, more international support for them, thus more Palestinians marching, and so on — the complacent Israeli center would get way less complacent. Suddenly facing a choice between a one-state solution and international ostracism, reasonable Israelis would develop a burning attraction to a two-state solution — and a sudden intolerance for religious zealots who stood in the way of it. Before long Israel would be pondering two-state deals more generous than anything that’s been seriously discussed to date.

Obviously, neutralizing Israeli extremists wouldn’t get rid of all obstacles to peace. For one thing, there are the Palestinian extremists. They could sabotage peaceful progress with attention-grabbing violence, and Hamas, in particular, has shown as much. But that problem, which looms large on the current road to peace, would loom smaller on the detour.

For starters, if a peaceful suffrage movement gave Palestinians the vigorous international support they’ve long sought, it would be hard for Hamas to conspicuously oppose it.

Besides, given the Arab birth rate, for Arabs to get the vote would theoretically put them on the path toward effective control of Israel, which is exactly what Hamas says it wants. It would be kind of awkward for Hamas to stand in the way of that.

Of course, once Israel started talking seriously about a two-state deal, Hamas could revert to fierce opposition. But if indeed the deal being discussed was more generous than those discussed in the past, the success of the Palestinian peace movement would be undeniable. Hamas might persist in its obstructionism, but it would have less support than it has now. That’s progress.

Given the ongoing damage done to America’s national security by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s in America’s interest for Israelis to feel intensely eager for a two-state deal. And some do.

As for the others: if they really grasped their predicament, they’d be intensely eager as well. The menu of futures for Israel features only three items: (1) two-state solution; (2) one-state solution; (3) something really, really horrible. There’s just no way that the situation will simmer indefinitely without boiling over, whether via nuclear bomb (purchased by terrorists from cash-hungry North Korea, say), or via a tit-for-tat exchange with Hamas or Hezbollah that spins out of control, bringing a devastating regional war, or via some other path to catastrophe.

Sooner or later, something will alert Israel’s unfortunately silent majority to the high price of leaving the Palestinian issue unresolved. The only question is whether by then the price will have already been paid.


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