(AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Prominent Palestinians are lighting a fire under Israel's feet by proposing a peace in which there would be no separate Palestine and Israel, but a single state with equal rights for all.
The recent talk of a binational state of Arabs and Jews may be little more than a Palestinian pressure tactic fed by frustration over the failure of talks on a two-state solution, but it has set Israeli leaders on edge.
Such a merger of Israel with the West Bank and Gaza Strip would quickly result in the Jews being outnumbered by the faster-growing Arab population. For most Israelis it would result in a nightmare choice: Give the Arabs full voting rights and lose Israel's Jewish character, or deny them equality and be branded an apartheid state.
This reality is not lost on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He created a stir last November when he told an Israeli newspaper that "the state of Israel is finished" unless each side gets a state of its own. And this week he pressed his case to his Cabinet.
Israel, he said, has no choice but to abandon the lands it captured during the 1967 war.
"Forty years after the Six-Day War, the international community's willingness to accept Israel as a binational state is growing," he said. "Some day, sooner than we think, we will long for the solutions that some of us reject today."
Olmert, the target of a career-ending corruption investigation, has announced he will soon resign. His likely replacement, Tzipi Livni, who on Wednesday won the ruling Kadima Party's leadership election, shares OImert's opinion that dividing the land is in Israel's supreme interest.
"We decided that time is against us," she recently told foreign journalists in Jerusalem.
Opinion polls show only minority support on both sides for a single state. But the idea is gathering important Palestinian adherents.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a commentary published this week in the Wall Street Journal, predicted "the parameters of the debate are apt to shift dramatically" if the sides don't reach a deal for two states soon.
"Israel's continued settlement expansion and land confiscation in the West Bank makes physical separation of our two peoples increasingly impossible," he wrote.
Ahmed Qureia, the Palestinians' chief peace negotiator, speaks openly of the possibility, and 27 Palestinian notables recently circulated a document urging their leaders to impose a deadline on current peace talks and, if missed, begin a South Africa-like struggle for equal rights in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Business leader Mohammed Shtayyeh, one of the Palestinians behind the document, calls it "an eye opener that tells the Israelis and Palestinians that time is ticking against a two-state solution."
In essence — and it may sound counter-intuitive — what Shtayyeh and others are saying is that in order to achieve statehood, Palestinians should give up on it: They should stop negotiating, declare Israel to be the sole governing power and demand that it treat all Palestinians under its control as equals — about 5.5 million Jews and roughly the same number of Arabs under one roof.
A big problem in achieving any kind of peace is weak leadership on both sides. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is up against the Hamas militants who rule Gaza and want Israel to disappear entirely.
Olmert has led an unwieldy coalition. During his two years in office, he spoke eloquently of the need for two states, but many of his actions, including building more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, worked against that goal.
After winning the Kadima primary, Livni is seeking to form her own governing coalition, and will likely need the support of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party that hotly opposes giving up any part of Jerusalem — an essential element of any future peace deal.
At the same time, Israeli public opinion hardened under constant rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza, the threat from Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants, and fear of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Some Israelis claim the demographic threat has been substantially reduced by Israel's 2005 decision to withdraw its troops and settlers from Gaza, home to 1.5 million Palestinians. But Israel still controls Gaza's borders, harbor and airspace, and Hamas' violent takeover there last year has damaged prospects for a two-state solution.
A binational state is not a new idea. It was essentially what the Palestine Liberation Organization preached until Yasser Arafat accepted the two-state option, and even a few dovish Israeli intellectuals favored it. However, it has always gotten short shrift from most Israelis, for whom Jewishness is the crux of Israel's existence and who fear their country would become another in a long line of troubled binational states around the world.
Sari Nusseibeh, president of the Palestinian Al Quds University in the West Bank, is a leading proponent of two states, but now says the one-state option should be on the table, even though making it work would be a "very protracted and long struggle full of hardship."
"We would still probably be third- or fourth-class citizens," he said in an interview. "It will not be the best kind of marriage."
Abbas continues to voice support for a two-state solution, but says he can understand why his chief negotiator, Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, would speak of a binational state.
"We don't want the solution of one state for the two peoples and the various people who do, including Abu Ala, do it out of despair," he told the Israeli daily Haaretz in an interview this week.