Is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unsolvable?

Why the so-called road map to peace ultimately may lead to a dead end: irreconcilable demographics.

Published April 18, 2005 7:26PM (EDT)

The familiar Israeli-Palestinian dance continues. Following his meeting with President Bush in Crawford last week, Ariel Sharon has signaled that he might delay the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza by three weeks, until mid-August, to avoid overlapping with a Jewish mourning period. Meanwhile, the Israeli government is moving ahead with plans for construction of an additional 50 homes in the West Bank settlement of Elkana -- even though Bush just warned Sharon again, per the peace plan known as the road map, that there could be no further expansion of settlements.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated the message for reporters traveling with Bush in South Carolina today: "We will be seeking clarification from the government of Israel," he said. "Israel should not be expanding settlements."

There's been some speculation as to how hard Bush will now push Sharon toward a real peace deal with the Palestinians. Despite some cautious criticism by Bush, the Israeli prime minister clearly still feels confident that the president won't push him too hard. With Palestinian leader Abu Mazen weakened by his inability to demonstrate tangible results, and militants growing impatient, the fragile cease-fire could blow up at any time.

But even if a peace deal is reached, will it be doomed by demographics and history? Writing in the May issue of the Atlantic Monthly, editor Benjamin Schwarz (sorry, sub. only) offers an extremely gloomy vision. Notwithstanding some relatively hopeful developments since Arafat's death five months ago, he argues that, in the long run, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain a problem without a solution. "The very circumstances that have pushed both sides toward accommodation militate against it," he writes. "Indeed, they point toward catastrophe."

In Schwarz's view, the problem boils down to one of demographics and resources, steeped in a bitter history.

"Assuming that a comprehensive settlement could be reached, Israel's long-term prospects are bleak," he writes. "A future Palestinian state hemmed in between the Green Line and the Jordan and in the Gaza Strip will face astronomical population growth (the population in Gaza now doubles every generation, and an enormous influx of former refugees now living throughout the Arab world -- mostly in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon -- is almost certain), scarce water, and dire economic conditions. (The obvious outlet for Palestinian labor -- Israel -- will perforce be tightly closed; otherwise the sort of creeping immigration the United States has experienced from Mexico would swamp Israel, thereby subverting efforts to maintain a Jewish state.) A host of realistic Israeli observers, including Israel's national security adviser, General Giora Eiland, doubt that the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan contains enough land and resources to sustain two viable sovereign states. In few places in the world do conditions more demand that two peoples develop a symbiotic relationship; in no other place are the chances of building such a relationship more remote."

Schwarz argues that faced with economic disaster and severe overcrowding, the future Palestinian state will end up trying to reclaim Israeli land. "...Palestinian leaders seeking further territorial revision will no doubt argue, correctly, that the Green Line was a cease-fire line, not an international boundary; that that line itself awards Israel territory won in war; and that it in no way resembles the boundaries of the UN partition resolution upon which the Jewish state was founded. David Ben-Gurion always urged his people to accept even the smallest Jewish state, arguing that it would serve as a springboard for future expansion. Palestine, he saw, would be taken over in stages. Today Israelis understandably fear that either by design or merely in response to exigencies it may be taken back in the same piecemeal fashion."

Schwarz concludes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may simply be insoluble. "At some level most perceptive Israelis seem to grasp these future existential dangers. In fact, in conversations with Israelis on the left and the (moderate) right in academe, the military, the government, and the security services, I've been struck by their grim declarations that they as a people aren't going anywhere, but also by their foreboding about the country their children will live in. Most of all, though, I've been struck by the frequency with which these men and women -- patriots all -- have wistfully said, 'We should have taken Uganda' (which Britain offered to the Zionist leadership in 1903). History shows that many problems have no solution -- a fact all but unfathomable to Americans. Nevertheless, the century-long Palestinian-Zionist conflict is a story of two peoples, each with reasonable claims to the same piece of earth; and nearly every aspect of that story suggests that in the end -- and to the detriment of those peoples, their region, and perhaps the entire world -- their aspirations are not amenable to compromise."

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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