Given the chaos in the White House — and President Trump's rush to abandon Syria to Iran and the next version of ISIS — it's easy to overlook two critical Mideast milestones.
The first was the announcement by Israeli officials that the number of Jews and Arabs living under Israeli control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean was now equal, at 6.5 million each. That includes Palestinians who live in the occupied areas of West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as well as Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Which brings us to the second milestone: In May, Trump will reportedly unveil his proposed "deal of the century" for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If leaked details prove correct, the plan basically endorses the status quo, with limited autonomy for Palestinians in around 40 percent of the West Bank, and Gaza.
Such a plan will only inflame local tensions.
The arrival of population parity provides a warning that the status quo can't hold (the current violence in Gaza is a preview of coming attractions). It confronts Israel with critical choices about whether to divide the land into two states or rule over one state with a (mostly) disenfranchised Arab population that will soon outnumber Jews.
Leading Israeli politicians have said publicly that a one-state solution will lead to a variant of apartheid, with Israelis soon ruling over a Palestinian majority that has no political rights or control over its economy.
Yet on a recent visit to Jerusalem, and in talks with Israeli politicians from left and right, and with Palestinian leaders, I found no one who could offer a formula that avoided the perils of one-state apartheid but resolved Israeli security fears about the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
It is much harder to envision a two-sovereign-states formula now than it would have been in the 1980s or 1990s when the Mideast was more stable.
On my recent trip, however, I found a remarkable complacency on the Israeli right based on two assumptions: first, that Trump will accept the annexation of large chunks of the West Bank, leaving Palestinians with limited control over a small, noncontiguous territory; and second, that such a plan will be acceptable to major Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt that now saw Israel as an ally against Iran.
That thinking is shortsighted. It leaves Israel unprepared for a surge in violence from frustrated Palestinian youths who see no decent economic or political future down the road.
So in the run-up to the Trump plan, I intend to present some of the ideas I heard in Israel and the West Bank in several columns, ending with my conclusions on a formula that might at least stabilize the current situation — until the Mideast quiets down.
The most frank thinking about keeping the status quo that I heard on the right came from Benny Begin, son of the late, former prime minister, Menachem Begin, and a maverick member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party known for his honesty and probity.
"Deal of the century," Begin said of the prospective Trump plan. "Ridiculous!"
Begin believes two sovereign states is an impossible option because it is impossible to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. In particular, he says the Palestinians can never, as a matter of principle, endorse the end of all claims to pre-1967 Israeli land, or give up the right of Palestinian refugees to return to that land, rather than to their new state. Without the end of such claims irredentism would never end.
Nor can he back the option offered by some on the left to unilaterally withdraw from West Bank territory other than Jewish settlement blocs along Israel's border. He points to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which led to control of that territory by the Hamas political group that rules out recognition of any Israeli state.
However, Begin also rejects the idea of one state with equal rights. "My father thought about it, talked about it," Begin says, "But I don't think it is feasible. You can't do it for the whole West Bank unless you have the option of Israeli citizenship for all citizens there. That would change the course of events; Israel would become a different country."
He means, of course, that Israel would cease to be a Jewish state.
So Begin argues for making life better for Palestinians under "the so-called sustainable status quo of the past five years." That would include enabling improvements to the Palestinian economy (which is heavily dependent on Israel) and eliminating more Israeli military roadblocks on the West Bank.
It would also mean making clear, he says, that this interim stage didn't preclude a permanent solution in the future "so neither side ever has to relinquish its hopes."
It is on this last point that Begin's concept falters. The current status quo has ceased to be "interim" because Israeli Jewish settlement activity on the West Bank has roared ahead under Netanyahu, including efforts to legalize lawbreaking settlements on seized Palestinian land. Settlements divide the West Bank into noncontiguous fragments. Moreover, the current interim phase has blockaded Gaza and turned it into an unbearable prison – however much the blame falls on Hamas.