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After the Gaza slaughter

Benjamin NethanyahuConflict between Israelis and Palestinians has become a fixture of the Middle East. Israelis can live with that as long as they retain military superiority and American backing, and are able to instil the fear of God in their opponents. Israeli leaders take Hizbollah's decision not to broaden the last Gaza war with rocket attacks on Israel as evidence that their strategy is still valid.

Yet as Israelis go to the polls next week for an election in which Benjamin Nethanyahu (pictured), a hard line believer in Israel's strategy of overwhelming capability and force, is the front runner, that strategy may have run its course.

Many Palestinians and Arabs have lost faith in the feasibility of the two-state solution involving a Palestinian state alongside Israel. They despair in the wake of the Gaza war and 21 years of failed peacemaking based on Palestinian concessions to Israel. They see no alternative to the two-state solution beyond continued resistance and steadfastness that offer little prospect for building normal, prosperous lives.

If there is a sliver of hope, it may lie in demography. Demographics could constitute a greater threat to Israel than Palestinian rockets or terrorism, and may be the wrench to break the cycle of death and destruction.

It has already motivated Israel's partial withdrawals from occupied territory, even though Israel refused to surrender control and empower Palestinian government. It also persuaded Israel to pay lip service to the two-state solution, although it did not demonstrate the boldness and vision needed to make that happen.

The figures speak for themselves. Although Jews will remain a majority in sovereign Israel, in the next decade they are projected to become a minority in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. As long as Israel remains in the West Bank and Gaza, this demographic forecast will pose a threat to the country's Jewish identity.

Nethanyahu has warned that if the Palestinians living inside Israel's pre-1967 border cross the 20 per cent  threshold, the Jewish nature of the state would be in danger. Fear of the demographic threat persists, despite some studies that suggest the threat may be less than imminent.

Demographics leave Israel with a choice: to encourage Palestinian immigration, pursue a policy of attempting to break Palestinian will, or seek a political accommodation that meets enough of the aspirations of both parties.

While Israel retains all three options, memories of the Gaza war are likely to focus on the human rights aspects of Israel's military conduct as well as its policies in the occupied territories. That may help spark debate in Israel on whether accommodation will in the end be its best option.

Discussions mediated by Egypt throughout the Gulf War offer a sliver of hope. Throughout its history Israel has professed that it seeks full-fledged peace with its Arab neighbors. Ceasefires were agreed after violent confrontation in a bid to give peacemaking a chance.

In the Cairo talks, Israel appeared willing to settle for less. For more than a decade it rejected Hamas' call for a ten-year truce. This was Hamas' way of seeking accommodation with Israel without surrendering its refusal to recognise Israel or drop its insistence on the Palestinian right to armed resistance. In Cairo, Israel was opposed to such a truce; Hamas, emboldened by its survival in Gaza, dropped its proposal in favor of a one-year truce at best.

The question facing the Obama administration is whether it should lower the sights of immediate peacemaking and seek to negotiate a long-term truce rather than definitive peace. This would rest on the hope that an end to violence and repression over a longer period of time would generate the vested interests needed to negotiate a final settlement.

If the Obama peacemaking effort sought more limited goals, it would give the dynamics of an armed truce time to do their work. The questions to which peacemakers would need an answer would be different and less complex than those they confront now.

Currently, peacemaking tries to bring together parties who either don't want to talk to one another, or whose goals are mutually exclusive. A long-term truce would prove to Israelis that non-violent coexistence and security are possible, and demonstrate to Palestinians that they are being allowed to build a national existence of their own with a promise of political, economic and social development.

That would reduce their urge to risk tranquillity and prosperity for violence. It would nurture a majority that would no longer see militant confrontation as the only way of achieving reasonable national goals.

James DorseyJames M. Dorsey covered ethnic and religious conflict for The Wall Street Journal and other media for 32 years.

Topic tags: james dorsey, middle east, demographics, gaza, palestine, israel, jewish



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Existing comments

My reading of Tel Aviv historian Shlomo Sand's work is that a two-state solution lacks historical legitimacy.
A one-state solution, such as was finally achieved in South Africa, remains the best way for justice within Israel/Palestine, and the best hope for peace in the Middle East.

David Arthur | 04 February 2009  

The one-state solution is notionally the best way forward but the Israelis will not take it because it would remove their domination of the former Palestine mandate territory. Israel is taking a very short-sighted and perilous stance. James Dorsey is correct. The demographic factor has huge implications for the Jewish state. So does the expectation that the American Empire, like all empires, will not last forever. Israel needs to plan now for the future. Otherwise, it will go the way of the Christian crusader states in the middle ages.

Sylvester | 04 February 2009  

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