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Thinking the Unthinkable

Israel is in a diplomatic and military jam that keeps getting worse, but has no obvious solution. It is rapidly approaching the demographic tipping point, when Palestinian Arabs outnumber Israeli Jews in the land now under Israeli control. When that happens, Israel will find that it has become a minority-rule state, and it will have to make the choice it has avoided up to now: whether to be a Jewish or a democratic state.

If it chooses democracy, it will no longer be the Jewish state of Israel. If it gives up on democracy, it will find itself more isolated — and threatened — than ever. Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, put it well last fall: If the peace process does not resume and lead to a Palestinian state soon, Israel is “finished.”

The only solution is to separate from the Palestinians in the territories, and the only practical way is through Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and partition into two separate states. That process must be carried out by agreement with the Palestinians. Unilateral withdrawal, as happened in Lebanon and Gaza, has been discredited by events.

But negotiations require a partner capable of carrying out its end of the bargain. The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s main negotiating partner, is toothless and incapable of imposing its will. It lost even nominal control of Gaza to Hamas, which bombards Israel daily and rejects the very idea of recognizing Israel.

Out of this impasse, a new consensus is emerging that Israel must talk to Hamas. The Islamist party has offered Israel a long-term cease-fire, lasting decades. It is already negotiating indirectly with Israel, through Egyptian mediators, for a prisoner exchange that would free kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit. Egypt is also working to bring Hamas and Fatah back together. With Hamas in tow, Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority could negotiate with Israel for a deal that has some chance of working.

As usual, the Israeli public is ahead of its leaders. A new poll conducted by Tel Aviv University and published this week in Ha’aretz shows that 64% of Israelis favor talks with Hamas, and only 28% are opposed. Several Israeli Cabinet ministers have come out in favor, as well. They understand that Israel urgently needs a strong Palestinian leadership to talk to.

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