- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Settlement expansion and Israel’s new security barrier are reducing hopes for a two-state solution in the Middle East, Palestinians and some Israelis say, leaving Israel more vulnerable than ever to a Palestinian “population bomb.”

“We are moving to the precipice of a slippery slope. I believe very strongly that the clock is ticking on the two-state solution, because of demography and geography,” said Yossi Alpher, the former head of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“We could find ourselves increasingly in a South Africa situation, in which a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority that lives in the enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The inauguration of Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia last week stoked optimism about renewed talks that could lead to a halt in three years of violence.

Israeli and Palestinian officials were to meet this week to lay the groundwork for talks between Mr. Qureia and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli newspapers reported.

While Mr. Qureia has expressed hope for reaching a cease-fire with Israel, Mr. Sharon might consider measures to ease humanitarian conditions in the West Bank as a good-faith measure.

But a U.N. report last week said that the security fence, which Israel says is necessary to keep terrorists out of its cities, will slice off 13 percent of the West Bank and leave large population centers sealed off in separate enclaves.

At the same time, Israel has permitted a growing number of Jewish settlers to stake claims to new West Bank hilltops, breaking up the territorial contiguity of Palestinian population centers.

In a Palestinian poll last month, about 80 percent of respondents said the feasibility of the two-state solution was disappearing.

“Strategically speaking, we are headed for disaster,” said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib. “It’s a matter of years, but not many years. There’s a strong sense of urgency of time.”

Israelis fear that the rapidly growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will overtake the Jewish population within a few decades, creating new demands for a single state where Jews and Arabs have equal rights.

The idea of sharing a flag or a national anthem with Palestinians is anathema for Israelis, especially Zionists.

The October poll found that most Palestinians, while losing faith in the goal of a separate nation, still would prefer that notion by a 2-1 margin.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, led by Yasser Arafat, has advocated a two-state solution since 1988.

“The public is still not there yet. National identity is still stronger,” said Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. “We’re not at South Africa yet. They’re thinking about independence rather than equality at this point.”

Other analysts say it’s only a matter of time until Palestinian opinion shifts toward a single state, a position favored by the PLO before 1988.

“This majority is declining, and the minority, which is calling for the alternative, is increasing but slowly,” Mr. Khatib said. “There is a trend of slow gradual increase in the minority supporting the one state.”

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