As I saw firsthand on a recent trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel is heading pell-mell toward an unprecedented danger: a "one-state solution" in which the Jewish state will control an unwilling population of Palestinian Arabs that soon outnumbers Jews.
Emboldened by President Trump, the Israeli right is rushing to foreclose any prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party now formally demands the annexation of Jewish settlements scattered across the West Bank, while his coalition partners call for formal annexation of at least 60 percent of the West Bank. Meantime, Palestinians would be confined to disconnected cantons of territory and cut off from Jerusalem.
"If we keep controlling the whole area," former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak recently warned, "it would become inevitably either non-Jewish or nondemocratic." He predicts that if Palestinians were given full civic rights, Israel would quickly become "a binational state with an Arab majority and civil war."
But deny them full rights, says Barak, and Israel would be on a "slippery slope toward apartheid." The A-word may be an inexact fit, but the point is clear: Israel would ultimately be in permanent control of an Arab majority that was denied basic rights. (Already there are approximately 4.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem plus 1.8 million Israeli Arab citizens compared to around 6.5 million Jews.)
This is why the Israeli opposition insists the two-state option must be kept alive for the future, even though they recognize that present prospects are dismal.
In a chaotic Mideast, with weak and divided Palestinian leaders, and an Israeli government that opposes two states, there is currently no chance for progress, especially when the Israeli right has the backing of the U.S. president. Yet as Vice President Pence prepares to head for Jerusalem, any future two-state possibility is being foreclosed by expanding Jewish settlements and changes in Israeli laws.
What was most striking on my trip is the vehemence with which Israeli politicians on the right denied they were headed toward one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
"Two states is impossible. One state is not feasible," I was told by a Likud member of Knesset, Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "That leaves us with the sustainable status quo of the last five years." By status quo, Begin means the current situation, where the Palestinian Authority has limited control over around 40 percent of the West Bank, within which it can administer towns, cities, and villages.
"We need to create a full-grown Palestinian self-governing autonomy," Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett told me, "where Palestinians govern themselves, barring security or an influx of refugees."
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel spoke of an "Economic Peace in this area" in which Israel would "upgrade the way of life in the West Bank and increase the number of Palestinian workers" who can enter Israel. "There won't be two states from the Jordan River to the sea. There will be all one sovereign [Israeli] country like today."
The problem with speaking about an upgraded "autonomy" for Palestinian areas or an economic peace is that such concepts run aground over political realities. The status quo is not static on the West Bank.
Drive around the West Bank and you can view expanding Israeli settlements hopping across hilltops and new highways that divide the Palestinian area into segmented cantons but link settlements with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem within a 30- to 40-minute drive. Meanwhile, Palestinians are unable to build or expand into the 60 percent of West Bank land that Israel totally controls and that many Israeli politicians seek to officially annex.
Moreover, Israeli talk of autonomy refers only to the West Bank, but leaves out Gaza, from which Israel has withdrawn all troops. Israeli politicians often refer to the Gaza Strip as a Palestinian "state." Yet Israel still controls Gaza's air space, seacoast, and borders (with one exception on the Egyptian border), and has largely blockaded the strip because the militant Hamas party controls it.
"The whole issue of economic peace doesn't work because this is a political issue," says Sam Bahour, an American businessman of Palestinian and Lebanese descent who came to Ramallah when things looked more optimistic. "Israel controls every strategic [West Bank] resource," he says, "including land, water, internet frequencies, movement of goods and people, trade, borders, and energy resources."
Political uncertainty (and Palestinian government corruption) makes it impossible to develop an advanced economy. Structurally, the West Bank remains totally dependent on, and integrated into, Israel.
"There is no investment at all in the Palestinian territories," says noted Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein, who just published a book on the Palestinian economy. "People won't put money in because things are unstable." He spoke of one businessman whose chain of supermarkets failed because perishables got spoiled waiting at Israeli military checkpoints, and workers couldn't arrive on time for the same reason.
So any Palestinian "autonomy" remains an economic subset of Israel and provides Palestinians with no real political control over their lives. And it fails to address the festering sore of the Gaza Strip, where unemployment is around 60 percent.
If the two-state solution is buried, autonomy will increasingly tie the West Bank into Israel and push Palestinians to demand equal rights in one state. "The problem," says the Institute for National Security Studies' Gilead Sher, a senior peace negotiator under Barak, "is how to convince Israelis and Palestinians that the two-state solution, even in its meager design, is best for them as individuals, communities, and nations. How to make people conscious of the tragic trajectory they are following."