November 10, 2003

Israel may soon take path U.S. can't follow

by Jay Bookman

Israel stands today at an important crossroads, trying to decide which of three roads it will travel.

If it chooses one road, the United States will be able to walk proudly alongside Israel as its friend, ally and, if necessary, its protector against any that threaten its security.

But if Israel chooses either of the remaining two routes, it will repudiate the shared values and strategic interests that have united Israelis and Americans for decades. Those Americans who count themselves as friends of Israel have an obligation to make that danger clear.

The issue, of course, is the fate of 3.5 million Palestinians on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Ever since the Camp David accords of 1978, official U.S. and Israeli policy has been based on the expectation that land could be exchanged for peace. Under that formula, Palestinians would recognize Israel's right to exist and live in peace; in return, Israel would abandon settlements in the occupied territories and allow creation of a Palestinian state.

Today, that path to peace is in danger of becoming a dead end. More than 230,000 Israelis now live on occupied Palestinian land, most of which would have to be surrendered to the Palestinians under the land-for-peace formula. Illegal settlements continue to be built, and a new wall being built to separate Palestinians from Israelis is extending deep into the West Bank.

Israeli officials describe the wall as merely temporary, a necessary means to stem the carnage caused by suicide bombers; they claim that the settlements can still be uprooted when the time comes. But those assurances are becoming less and less believable. If trends continue, a time will come when exchanging territory for peace is no longer a viable option for the Israelis. In fact, some would argue that time has come already.

If a two-state solution is indeed no longer possible, the occupied territories would in essence become a permanent part of the state of Israel, creating a country that reaches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. That additional territory, however, also comes equipped with so many Palestinians that by the end of the decade, the enlarged Jewish state would actually contain more Arabs than Jews within its borders.

To preserve its Jewish character, Israel would then have two choices:

• It could deny citizenship and voting rights to its Arab majority, thus surrendering any right to call itself a democracy. Given the difficulties inherent in a minority trying to permanently repress a majority, Israel would also be forced to deny basic human rights to its Arab subjects. Israelis would reduce themselves to the Jewish equivalent of white South Africans, who for so long sat uncomfortably astride a black majority. U.S. support for Israel would inevitably erode under those conditions.

• Israel could try to rid itself of the problem of long-term repression by forcing the Palestinians to leave the country, either directly through threat of violence or indirectly by making life so difficult they would flee. In other words, ethnic cleansing, although the preferred term in Israeli policy debate is "transfer." There is no question that today a strong majority of Israelis find that option all but unthinkable. It is also true, however, that Israel is today employing brutal tactics against Palestinians that were unthinkable back in 1985 or 1990.

After another 10 years of repressive occupation and suicide bombing by Palestinians, attitudes about "transfer" could change as well, again forfeiting the support of many millions of Americans.

For the moment, Israel would seem to be making no choice whatsoever. But as is often the case, no choice is in fact a choice. The settlements are growing, increasing in population by more than 30 percent in the past five years. In a recent poll, 40 percent of Israelis feared a civil war was probable if their country ever tried to evacuate the settlements. The wall is growing longer, the concrete is setting. Quietly, almost unconsciously, Israel is making choices that will set it on a course that the United States should not follow.

It is a course that makes many of Israel's friends despair for its future.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.