JERUSALEM — At his White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, United States President Barack Obama enthused that the talks about talks will probably lead to talks, and his assessment was that the Israeli government is ready to take part in those talks.
As the camera shutters clicked and the Israeli prime minister cocked his eyebrow in the way he favors when trying to look smarter than everyone else in the room, the most powerful man in the room said: “We expect proximity talks to lead to direct talks, and I believe that the government of Israel is prepared to engage in such direct talks.”
If that sounds like a lot of nothing, that’s because underlying all the talking about talks there’s a growing sense that none of it will ever lead anywhere. Anywhere good that is. The talks are supposed to be about what’s known as the “two-state solution,” in which the land of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza is divided into a state for Israel and a state for the Palestinians.
More and more Israelis and Palestinians, however, acknowledge (or fear) that it’s too late to effectively divide the land as the Israeli and Palestinian populations grow and merge geographically. All the talking about talks and the climate of fear in both nations’ polities delays the chance of a final deal. That, in turn, allows changes on the ground to make a two-state solution still further away.
“The two-state solution is really not an option anymore,” said Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz and author of a new book of essays about the Palestinians called “The Punishment of Gaza.”
“It’s on its last legs,” he said.
Levy points to the expansion of Israeli settlements over the years as one of the key factors in making a two-state solution harder to execute. The settlements lie atop many West Bank hills and are home to 300,000 Israelis. It’d be a hard sell to make many of those Israelis up stakes and move.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said early in the week he’d agree to a partial swap of land, so that some of the biggest settlements could remain Israeli. He backed off, either because his own people didn’t like the idea or because he realized he’d shown his hand before even agreeing to direct negotiations.
Why does making two states matter? To Israelis it’s the only way to ensure the survival of their state as a state of the Jews. Look at these numbers from professor Sergio della Pergola, an expert on demographics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. If the Palestinians had a state in the West Bank and Gaza, the Jewish majority inside Israel would be 79 percent of the population — a large enough majority, della Pergola said, to justify the idea of a Jewish state.
But if there’s no two-state solution, things look very murky. In Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, Jews outnumber Arabs by a sliver — they’re 52 percent of the population. And by the end of this year, with Arab birthrates so much higher, for the first time Jews will find themselves outnumbered.
In other words, if there weren’t a two-state solution, there’d be more Arabs in the area than Jews and it would seem untenable for Israel to maintain its status as a Jewish state.
You’d think that would imbue the Israeli government with a sense of urgency to make a deal before the population numbers tilt toward the Palestinians — at which point one might expect the Palestinian leadership to give up on dividing the land and to push for a single state with guess-who winning the popular vote to lead the new country.
But Netanyahu has been drifting around the edges of the so-called proximity talks — talks mediated by U.S. diplomats that are intended to lay the groundwork for direct talks, when Palestinians and Israelis will face each other over the table.
He’s delaying because direct talks are a considerable risk for him, even though their intended result — a two-state solution — has the support of a majority of Israelis. Most Israelis feel they tried the face-to-face talks and made several offers of a final peace deal, all of which were rejected by the Palestinians. Instead of trying again, Israelis seem to prefer to ignore the issue.
“Within Israeli society, the apathy is just getting worse and worse,” said Levy. “Israeli society is in a state almost of coma.”
On the next bed to comatose Israel in the trauma ward, Palestinian society, by contrast, is twitching in pain as its politicians refuse to allow its two divided parts to be sewn together. Its quiet civil war continues.
Before the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, Abbas said he’d be willing to go for direct talks. After the meeting, he changed his mind. His office said he wanted to see more progress in the “proximity talks” before he’d allowed actual talks.
Abbas is in no hurry. On the one hand, he knows that if agreement were reached quickly, he’d be forced to admit that he doesn’t speak for Gaza, which is run by Hamas, and therefore couldn’t sign a comprehensive deal with any confidence. But it could also be that he’s been reading professor della Pergola’s statistics and knows that time is on the side of the Palestinians.