Israel’s future: The three steps that will save it from endless conflict and international ostracism.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 9 2011 6:59 AM

How to Save Israel

The three steps that could rescue it from endless conflict and international ostracism.

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Likewise for refugees. Palestinian legislators would demand that Israel's Law of Return be extended to cover Palestinians returning to their homeland. Jewish politicians would oppose the move, which would reduce their community to a threatened minority. Palestinians would demand the return of property lost in 1948 and perhaps the rebuilding of destroyed villages.  Except for the drawing of borders, virtually every question that bedevils Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations would become a domestic problem, setting the new political entity aflame.

Issues not at the center of today's diplomacy would also set the two communities at odds. Israel has a post-industrial Western economy; The West Bank and Gaza are underdeveloped. Financing development in majority-Palestinian areas and bringing Palestinians into Israel's social-welfare network would require Jews to pay higher taxes or receive fewer services. But the engine of the Israeli economy is high-tech, an entirely portable industry. Both individuals and companies would leave, crippling the new shared economy. Meanwhile, two nationalities who have desperately sought a political frame for cultural and social independence would wrestle over control of language, art, street names, and schools. Psychologically, it would be a country with two resentful minorities and no majority.

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Even in the best case, the outcome would be the continued existence of separate Jewish and Palestinian political parties. And even the more liberal-leaning parties of each community would be hard-pressed to bridge the divide to form stable coalitions. Israel would become a second Belgium, perpetually incapable of forming a stable government. In the more likely case, the political tensions would ignite as violence. The transition to a single state would mark a new stage in the conflict. For a harsh example of the potential fluctuation between political stalemate and civil war, Palestinians and Jews need only look northward to Lebanon.

A single state could easily be the result of Israel failing to make any choices. It would not be a solution—even a workable arrangement, which is what politics normally offers in place of solutions. It would be a nightmare: another of the places marked on the globe as a country, in which two or more communities do battle while the most educated or well-connected members of each look for refuge elsewhere.

A third objection to a two-state solution, from the Israeli right and its overseas supporters, is that it requires Israel to sacrifice too much for peace. This reflects an old habit of thought in which territory is the coin that Israel reluctantly pays for a peace agreement.

It's true that peace is an essential end in itself. But Israel must also give up land to reestablish itself as a state and a democracy. It needs to put a border back on the map. Within that border, the government needs to rule by the consent of the governed. It needs to restore the rule of law and end the ethnic conflict.

Peace with the Palestinians is a means for achieving these goals. It provides the way for Israel to end its grip from outside on the Gaza Strip and to leave the West Bank safely. "Hold too much, and you will hold nothing," the Talmud says. If the state of Israel tries to continue holding the West Bank, there will be no state.

Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His latest book is The Unmaking of Israel.