World view: Israel- the two-state solution is dead

"Everybody knows how this will end," wrote Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's best-known journalists, in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot recently.

"There will be a bi-national [state]."

The "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead; long live the "one-state solution".

The two-state solution, promised by the Oslo Accords of 1993, was the goal of the "peace process" of the past 20 years. It envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state in the one-fifth of the former colony of Palestine that did not end up under Israeli rule after the war of 1948. That Palestinian mini-state, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, would live alongside Israel in peace, and the long, bitter struggle over Palestine would end happily.

That Palestinian state is no longer a viable possibility, mainly because there are now half a million Jewish settlers living among the 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and former East Jerusalem.

"I do not give up on the two-state solution on ideological grounds," wrote Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger in September. "I give up on it because it will not happen."

The greatest triumph of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, has been to make the two-state solution impossible. Both men pretended to accept the Oslo Accords in order to ward off foreign pressure on Israel, but both worked hard and successfully to sabotage them by more than tripling the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank in just 20 years.

Now the job is done, and it is not only Israelis who can read the writing on the wall. Moderate Palestinians, never all that enthralled with the prospect of a tiny "independent" country completely surrounded by the Israeli army, are also giving up on the two-state idea.

As Ahmed Qurei, who led the Palestinian delegation that negotiated the Oslo Accords, wrote recently: "We must seriously think about closing the book on the two-state solution."

So the one-state solution is creeping back on to the agenda, if only tentatively. The present Israeli Government will have nothing to do with it, since endless, futile talk about an independent Palestinian state serves Mr Netanyahu's purposes so well. But one day there will be a different government in Israel, and the Palestinians will still be there.

What are the odds the one-state solution might then get real traction?

In a sense, the single state already exists: Israel has controlled the West Bank militarily since the conquest of 1967, and until recently it occupied the Gaza Strip as well. Almost 40% of Israelis already support a solution that would simply incorporate the West Bank into Israel permanently.

But what would Israel do with those 2 million extra Palestinians who would then live within the country's expanded borders?

Combine them with the million and a-half Palestinians in Israel, the descendants of those who were not driven out in 1948, and there would be 3.5 million Palestinians in a one-state Israel that included almost all the land west of the Jordan River.

Add the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who will number another 2 million in five years' time, and there would be 5.5 million Palestinians in Israel. That would mean there were almost as many Palestinians in Israel as there are Jews.

That unwelcome prospect is probably why Mr Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and sealed the border in 2005: if there were ever a one-state solution, he didn't want those extra 2 million Palestinians to be part of it. He did want to keep the West Bank, on the other hand, "but even without the Gaza Strip, the one-state solution would produce an Israel whose population was more than one-third Palestinian".

This is precisely why an increasing number of Palestinians favour the one-state solution. They have tried guerrilla war to get their lands and their political rights back, to no avail.

They have tried terrorism, which didn't work either. They tried negotiation for 20 years, and that didn't work. So maybe the best tactic would be to change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an international problem to a civil rights problem.

So the Palestinians should just accept the permanent annexation of the West Bank by Israel, argue the one-staters. Indeed, they should actively seek it. They are already Israeli subjects, by every objective measure of their condition. If they become Israeli citizens instead, then the question of their status becomes a civil rights issue, to be pursued nonviolently "and perhaps with a greater chance of success".

That is the logic of the pro-one-state argument among the Palestinians, and it is flawless if you assume Palestinians would enjoy full rights of citizenship once the West Bank was legally part of Israel. But that is rather unlikely, as the status of Israel's existing Palestinian citizens already demonstrates. They are much poorer and less influential politically than their Jewish fellow citizens.

A new public opinion poll in Israel by the Dialog polling group reveals almost 70% of Israeli Jews would object to giving West Bank Palestinians the vote even if Israel annexed the territory they live in. The only alternative is an apartheid-style state where only the Jewish residents have rights, but most Israelis seem quite relaxed about that. The Palestinians are probably heading up another blind alley.

But then, all the alleys are blind.

 - Gwynne Dyer is an independent London journalist.