THE BLOG
10/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is this Israel's Last Chance for Peace?

This is the story of two debates that have been unfolding in rival nations, in rival tongues, on one skinny patch of land in the Levant. In Israel, Kadima -- the main governing party -- has been deciding who should be its new leader. In Palestine, the population has been mooting a dramatic shift in their struggle for liberation. Soon, these debates are destined to collide -- in either blood or peace.

The Israeli debate had an air of willed evasion. The military's blockade of Gaza -- reducing it to pre-modern rubble just a short drive from hi-tech Tel Aviv - was barely discussed. The candidates seemed to be carefully avoiding taking a position on anything. The Israeli tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth noted: "Ask Tzipi Livni what time it is, and she will reply, after carefully examining Israel's position in relation to the global time issue and the international date line, that she has a very definite position, but isn't willing to specify what it is to the media."

It's a sign of how desensitized Israel has become to the violence committed in its name that the potential indictment for war crimes of Livni's main rival, Shaul Mofaz, was barely an issue. It has emerged that when he was the military chief of staff in 2001, he ordered his troops to fulfil a "daily quota" of killing seventy Palestinians a day. He came within 431 votes of winning the election.

From the wispy clouds of this contest, what has emerged? In theory, the winner Livni should be in a strong position to understand nationalist "terrorists" who have planted bombs on buses and in cafés -- because she was raised by them. Her father was the Military Director of the Irgun, the underground Jewish militia that spent the 1930s and 40s targeting the British occupying forces and Arab civilians who were trying to prevent the creation of the state of Israel. Livni was brought up to revere their tales of blowing up marketplaces, cafés and hotels; she proudly defends them to this day.

How would Livni's parents have responded to mass punishment -- blockades, checkpoints, bullets? Would they shrug and surrender? The leader of the Irgun, Menachem Begin, wrote that every British attempt to "break our backs... only made us stronger and more determined." The same is happening with Palestinian nationalists today. Stripped of a state, they are fighting for one - and every Israeli attack makes them more radical and enraged.

But does Livni see the parallel? In the abstract, she advocates a two-state solution -- but in Israel she has been dubbed "Ms. Not-Right-Now" because she always says she believes in compromising for peace but "not right now." Her husband said she decided to become a politician because of her "scathing" disapproval of the Oslo accords, signed exactly fifteen years ago. She reiterated this during the campaign. But Oslo was rigged in Israel's favour: while it lasted, the number of Jewish fundamentalist settlers on Palestinian land nearly doubled, and Palestinian movement was harshly curtailed. It is a myth that the Palestinians were offered a real two-state solution and rejected it. Even Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's Foreign Minister at the time, says: "If I were a Palestinian, I would have rejected Camp David as well."

If even this was too much for Livni, what practical peace can she achieve? This is the debate too many Israelis dodged this summer; they chose instead to block their ears, and ascribe the thud of rockets hitting their outskirts to raw evil.

This is where the parallel Palestinian debate needs to be heard above the Separation Wall. For decades, the demands of the Palestinian leadership -- and the Israeli peace camp -- have focused on the division of the land between Israeli and Palestinian states. There is still in principle a slender majority supporting this on both sides. But after fifteen years of stillborn promises, that vision is rotting. Unless there is a swift shift, the two-state vision will be supplanted -- by a vision of a "binational" one-state solution.

Several leading Palestinians -- including the late Edward Said, the former Prime Minister Ahmed Queri, and Sari Nusseibeh -- have begun to outline this idea. In one of those strange whirls on the roundabout of history, they are actually reviving an old idea pioneered by Zionist left-wingers. Back in the 1920s, a small number of Jewish socialists and liberals like Martin Buber tried to negotiate one big shared state with the Palestinians: one country, one set of laws, one parliament for everyone. Although they found some Palestinian interlocutors, these early binationalists were slapped down by both communities. Today their idea is being dug out of its ditch of despair.

The Palestinians would stop asking for a free enclave of their own, and start demanding full legal equality in one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Equipped with this demand, they would no longer appear to the world as a fragmented minority, but -- all added together -- as a majority in Israel/Palestine ruled over by a racially-defined minority. It would look even more like South Africa Redux. Israel would then be incapable of marshalling international coalitions against possible threats from Iran or elsewhere: it would be alone, and anathemized.

The Middle East conflict would shift from being a tricky-but-soluble crisis to an insoluble civil war. Michael Neumann -- the author of The Case Against Israel -- warns:

"One-staters apparently believe that Israel will give up the reason for its existence and at the same time expose itself not to the risk but to the certainty of being 'swamped by Arabs.' This in turn would indicate a willingness to accede to anything an 'Arab' majority might enact. Can anyone seriously imagine this? Will millions of Jews just leave if the majority says it should? Will they agree to crushing compensation payments?"

No. They will fight -- and this time, there will be no space for compromise between the competing visions.

The window of opportunity for a two-state peace is closing. Before it jams shut, the Israelis need to hear the plea coming through the checkpoints. Divide the land. Divide it now. Divide it properly. Or we will all end up battling forever -- over nothing but soil soaked in blood and cordite.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. You can read more of his articles at here.