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TEL AVIV, Israel – An apocalyptic tone has crept into Israel's hitherto muted election season, with opposition leaders and others sounding increasingly desperate warnings that a few more years of rule by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's heavily favored right wing might well destroy the Jewish state.
The idea is that by holding onto the lands Palestinians want for their state — and continuing to settle them with Jews — the Israeli right is marching blindly toward a future in which Arabs could outnumber Jews in the country and ultimately take over.
Perhaps the most strident proponent of this message is former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who four years ago led peace talks with the Palestinians and recently founded a new party whose primary message is that the Zionist project is in danger. "Netanyahu is leading us toward the end of the Jewish state," she said in a statement Friday. "Israelis must choose between extremism and Zionism. Israel is in great danger and everyone must wake up now."
Outgoing opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief and defense minister, warns at campaign appearances that Arabs will soon outnumber Jews in the Holy Land and the main strategic priority must be to partition the land to prevent the emergence of a "binational state." Leaders of the main center-left Labor Party say much the same.
Netanyahu's majority depends on his Likud party in coalition with other nationalist and religious groups known as the "right." Despite all its bewildering complications, the political spectrum ultimately resembles something of a two-party system.
The prime minister and his supporters have argued that Israel must not act in haste and many on the right stridently oppose any territorial concessions on the lands Israel captured in 1967 — the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, where the Palestinians want to set up their state.
The author Amos Oz, who has long been viewed as an oracle of sorts in Israel, called the governing coalition "the most anti-Zionist in the history of Israel" for ignoring the demographic issue.
"If there will not be two states here, neither will it (even) be a binational state — it will be an Arab state," he was quoted by Haaretz as saying on Friday. "They believe Jews can rule an Arab majority (but) no apartheid nation in the world survived without collapsing in a few years."
Netanyahu himself has at times conceded the logic of the argument: Israel proper has 6 million Jews living alongside almost 2 million Arab citizens; with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza thrown into the mix, the populations divide about evenly and the Arab birthrate is higher. Hence, if Israel insists on ruling the entire Holy Land, Jews will be in the minority.
Even as the tipping point approaches, Israel continues to add to the Jewish settler population in the West Bank, which together with the Israelis who live in adjacent east Jerusalem now number a half million. Israelis on the left fret that too many settlers will make a partition impossible in a few years. Under this narrative, partition is not an Israeli "concession," which must await Palestinian promises of peace — but rather a life-saving surgery for the Zionist enterprise.
The demographic message resonates with many Jewish Israelis who — like the founding fathers of Zionism a century ago — view themselves as an ethnic group and consider Israel its nation-state. And it seems widely supported among the country's secular elites — in academia, the business world, major media organizations and even in the senior echelons of the security establishment.
Israel's security chiefs must generally clam up while in office, but outbursts by the recently retired have been striking: Yuval Diskin, who headed the Shin Bet security police, excoriated Netanyahu for missing a chance to pursue peace with the moderate Palestinian leadership of Mahmoud Abbas; Meir Dagan, who headed the Mossad spy agency, has portrayed the premier as a dangerous adventurer who might drag Israel into war with Iran; and former military chief Gabi Ashkenazi was so widely touted as a leader-in-waiting for the left that a law was passed freezing security officials out of politics for just long enough to keep him out of the current election season.
In an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, Diskin warned that the current lull in Palestinian violence was in danger because it depends on the Palestinian Authority's security cooperation with Israel — and Palestinian leaders "will not be able to be seen over time as the protectors of the Israeli interests while Israel, from their perspective, every day steals more lands, builds more (Jewish) settlements, and pushes away their dream of a state, chopping up the territory into parts that it will be very difficult to connect."
"I don't know whether it is possible to achieve peace, but with these moves we are certainly diminishing even the small chance that is left," Diskin said.
Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said it was "not surprising that in Israel the officers are more moderate ... as men of war who lost (friends) they become pragmatists because they all sense very clearly the limitations of power." But he warned that the broad support of a country's elites for a given political argument would not necessarily translate into a persuasion of the masses.
Indeed, most polls show the right-wing bloc led by Likud as likely to win perhaps 65 of the 120 seats, enough to keep Netanyahu in power — even though studies suggest most Israelis would support a formal two-state solution if one were offered.
There are several reasons that account for this contradiction and compel so many Israelis to put the demographic issue aside.
First, Israel pulled out of the tiny but crowded Gaza Strip in 2005, removing all settlers and soldiers and cutting off its almost 2 million people from Israel with a fence. Thus many Israelis feel they won some "demographic time" and dumped the troublesome territory — yet the Palestinians see Gaza as linked to the West Bank and they consider it still occupied because Israel controls air and sea access to it.
Second, the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians live in autonomous zones set up in negotiations during the 1990s. There the Palestinian Authority enjoys a measure of self-rule, with its own services to citizens, its own police and various trappings of quasi-statehood — enabling Israelis to view this population as not exactly under occupation and already somewhat separated from Israel. They note that Israel has not formally annexed the West Bank, the implication being that even though the territory has Jewish settlers who can vote in Israeli elections — it is not Israel.
But the reality is messy: dozens of islands of autonomy surrounded on all sides by the 60 percent of the West Bank still fully controlled by Israel, with Jewish settlements dotting the territory and Israel controlling Palestinians' movements between the zones and into and out of the West Bank. With the settlements in place, a reasonable-looking map is already difficult to envision.
Perhaps most damaging for the left, Israelis appear to have lost faith that the lands can be traded for peace, because even when their leaders proposed what they considered far-reaching offers no deal was reached. That happened under Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2001, and again when the government of Ehud Olmert proposed a state on almost all the Palestinian territories in 2008.
One poll conducted several weeks ago showed 60 percent of Israeli Jews support a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians — but 67 percent believe that "no matter which parties prevail, the peace process with the Palestinians will remain at a standstill for reasons not connected to Israel." The poll of 601 people had a 4.5 percent margin of error.
Some — like columnist Elia Leibowitz — argue for a unilateral pullout from at least part of the territory, if a deal is unattainable. "The fateful question now facing Israel is Hamlet's: To be or not to be," Leibowitz wrote in Haaretz. "The option of Israel 'being' exists only if it withdraws from all the occupied territories."
But the unilateral model has been discredited in the eyes of many by the example of Gaza where the Israeli handover was followed by a takeover by the Islamic militant group Hamas and years of cross-border rocket barrages.
"As opposed to the voices that I have heard recently urging me to run forward, make concessions (and) withdraw, I think that the diplomatic process must be managed responsibly and sagaciously and not in undue haste," Netanyahu said last week. He notes that he has offered peace talks but the Palestinians insist on a settlement freeze, which is politically difficult for a right-wing government.
The sense that they have run out of options — and yet that something has to give — has some on the left predicting the world will step in.
"Maybe we need to hit rock bottom, to be on the verge of international sanctions or a (foreign) military intervention before change can happen," said Liora Norwich, a 30-year-old in a Tel Aviv cafe, concluding that in this sense a Netanyahu victory could be for the best.
And critically, the demographic argument alienates the Israeli Arabs who are crucial to any hopes of assembling a majority in the electorate against the right.
Among that group as well, the idea that a separation is no longer possible is increasingly heard.
"Every day that passes, with the expansion of settlements ... closes the window of opportunity and sends people thinking about another option: the one-state solution," prominent Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi said.
Contemplating such as Arab-majority state, Tibi added: "That's probably the only option in which I will be prime minister."
Dan Perry has reported on the Middle East for two decades and currently leads AP's coverage in the region. Follow him on www.twitter.com/perry_dan . Associated Press writer Ariel David in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.