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Grim death of two states

Are political leaders in Jerusalem contemplating the dire cost to Israel if the prospects for a two-state solution come to an end?

Are political leaders in Jerusalem contemplating the dire cost to Israel if the prospects for a two-state solution come to an end?

It doesn't seem so. This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed new Jewish settlement projects in and around Jerusalem that will effectively bisect the West Bank. They will also sever the physical link between the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem. If carried out, these projects will make it impossible to establish a viable, contiguous Palestinian state alongside Israel.

In other words, these settlement projects could finally bury any prospect of a two-state solution. And the death of the two-state solution threatens the future of a democratic Jewish state.

Ironically, Netanyahu's call for new settlements was meant as retaliation against the Palestinian government for seeking a U.N. General Assembly vote that strengthened the concept of two states. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sought the vote, which elevated Palestine to observer-state status, to strengthen his hand against his Hamas rivals in Gaza, who refuse to recognize Israel.

Netanyahu, playing to his hard-right base before the January elections, didn't seem to grasp that irony. Instead, he called for building a particularly controversial new settlement east of Jerusalem, on land known as area E1. He knew that building on this particular land would cross a red line for Palestinians and infuriate his closest Western allies, because it would rule out any possibility of making Arab East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state. Indeed, the E1 project has drawn harsh criticism from European and U.S. officials (as it did from the last Bush administration when it was proposed before).

Netanyahu chose to poke a finger in President Obama's eye just after the United States voted with Israel against observer status for the Palestinians - one of only nine countries to do so. In one stroke, the Israeli leader not only undercut his country's strategic interests and boosted Hamas over its West Bank rivals, but also further undercut Obama's standing in the Middle East.

The perverseness of this move was stated with breathtaking clarity by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an address to the Israel Policy Forum in New York on Monday. "I thought the president [Obama] deserved a vote of thanks," Olmert said, "so I was utterly surprised, as were most countries in the world, that the next morning, the [Israeli] government did the one thing that was certain to offend U.S. policymakers" - call for building in the E1 corridor.

Olmert also argued that the U.N. vote on Palestinian status was in Israel's strategic interest. "At the end of the day, we pray that the danger of one state for two peoples will be removed from the agenda," he said. "So when the U.N. General Assembly approved the concept of a Palestinian state . . . I thought this is precisely what we want."

Olmert, a politician of the center right, has no illusions about the ease of achieving two states. During negotiations with Abbas in 2008, he put forward the most far-reaching peace plan any Israeli leader has. "It was not rejected," he said, "but it was not accepted."

Olmert said he "prayed" that the Obama administration would "start from where we left off," but the Obama team pursued a different tack, as did subsequent, harder-line Israeli governments. For the past two years, Abbas has refused to negotiate unless Israel imposes a total freeze on Jewish settlements.

No doubt Palestinians also bear a heavy share of the blame for the failure of negotiations. Yasir Arafat's decision to talk and fight during the second intifada, which began in 2000, convinced many Israelis that peace was impossible. (Olmert says he never believed that Arafat wanted to make peace, though he believed that Abbas did.)

Moreover, Hamas' takeover in Gaza, and its firing of rockets at Israeli towns and cities, make most Israelis reluctant to contemplate any further withdrawals from the West Bank. The Arab upheavals in the region add to Israeli fears.

However, as Olmert recognizes, an end to talks on two states confronts Israel with an unthinkable future: permanent rule over millions of resentful Palestinians. If Israel gives them the vote, their high birthrate guarantees that they will ultimately outnumber Jews in Greater Israel. The other alternative, rule by force over a disenfranchised majority, would turn Israel into a variant of an apartheid state.

Netanyahu apparently hopes he can persuade Palestinians to accept an ersatz state composed of disconnected cantons linked by tunnels or bridges, and severed from Jerusalem by Israeli settlements. Many Israelis hope they can devolve responsibility for populous Gaza onto Egypt. Both these hopes are delusional.

Israel's plan for the E1 corridor lays bare the grim question no one in Jerusalem or Washington wants to face: What are the consequences of the death of the two-state solution? Unless the E1 plans are dropped and negotiations are resumed, we are likely to start learning the answer all too soon.