ABU DIS, West Bank _ With gloom deepening over prospects for peace, a leading Palestinian is suggesting they might drop the "two-state solution" that has underpinned two decades of negotiations, aiming for Israel and a Palestinian state next to each other.
Instead, Palestinians might seek a multi-ethnic state covering all of historic Palestine _ including today's Israel, said former Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia in an interview at his office in this West Bank town.
Deriding what remains of the peace process as "no more than a waste of time," Qureia condemned the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for settling the occupied West Bank with Jews and blocking Palestinian access to their hoped-for capital in Jerusalem.
"If this is the policy, I think it is a big lie to talk about the two-state solution," said Qureia. "They are killing the opportunity of two-state solution. If it dies ... there are other choices.
"One state is one of the choices."
Qureia is subtly aligning himself with a narrative that turns the standard Israeli-Palestinian discourse, with its focus on Palestinian victimization, on its head: Israel may need an end to its occupation of Palestinian lands more urgently than the Palestinians do, to avoid being overwhelmed by sheer numbers of Arabs.
He is the highest ranking Palestinian to articulate a view that is increasingly heard behind closed Palestinian doors: despite the privations of the occupation, time is oddly on their side, and Israel is shooting itself in the foot with its settlements and stalling.
Qureia said Netanyahu has a rapidly closing window to strike a two-state deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who "can deliver." But Abbas might not long retain that credibility, and less amenable leaders could succeed him, Qureia warned.
"I don't think that they will accept what we accept," he said, referring to the Palestinian state limited to the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 war.
"If Israel will not choose this opportunity I think they will be the loser," Qureia said. "The most important element in the stability of Israel is to create (relations) with the region. ... There are changes in the Arab world. Islamic politics now is prevailing in most of the Arab countries. ... It will not be in favor of Israel."
Netanyahu recently joined dovish Israelis who for years have advocated creating a Palestinian state precisely because the alternative of adding the occupied territories to Israel _ effectively, the one-state solution _ would flood the Jewish state with Arabs. Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 largely due to similar concerns.
Under the 1990s interim accords that set up the Palestinian Authority and its disconnected islands of autonomy, the sides were supposed to reach a final peace deal within five years.
Twice in the previous decade, they came close to a deal based on creating a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, but couldn't bridge gaps on the emotional issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. The second time was in 2008, when Qureia himself was the chief Palestinian negotiator.
In the wake of that breakdown, Netanyahu was elected Israeli prime minister and took his more moderate predecessor's offer off the table.
The Palestinians have not budged much from their demand for all the territory Israel captured in 1967, including east Jerusalem with its Old City, containing key sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians. They also want at least a symbolic "right of return" to Israel of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants.
Israelis seem unwilling to pay this price, and many are especially alarmed at the prospect of dividing Jerusalem between two countries _ though a form of such a division was part of the two ill-fated Israeli peace offers.
For the Palestinians, Qureia said, it's a minimum payoff needed by any leader to "sell" his people on a deal acquiescing to the loss of the majority of historic Palestine.
"If the two-state solution will not succeed ... what you can do?" Qureia asked. "You can go back to other choices. I am not calling to kill the two-state solution. I am saying that who killed the two-state solution is Israel."
Palestinians increasingly conclude this from the fact that Israel continues settling the occupied lands, and by now a half million Jews live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem at its center, turning partition into a messier prospect by the day.
But the twist _ the reason why the one-state solution, in the mouths of Palestinians, amounts to a threat _ is that if nothing happens, the outcome may be worse for Israel than the Palestinians: A default single entity consisting of Israel proper, the West Bank, and Gaza, where Arabs would quickly outnumber Jews.
Yossi Beilin, a veteran peace negotiator who helped broker the interim accords, agreed that eventually Israel would face a reality in which Arabs outnumber Jews in territory under its control. Its response, he predicted, will be a unilateral pullout from parts of the West Bank.
"They will not have to deal with refugees and they will have no agreements, no defense agreements, nothing. But at least there will not be a demographic threat," Beilin said.
Creating anything resembling a clean border would still require removal of some Jewish settlers.
Qureia, who was the Palestinian prime minister from 2003-2006, first aired his view in a statement last month, writing, "I believe that this approach, despite its problems, gives us a moral leverage."
The reaction from the rest of the Palestinian leadership was muted.
Asked about it, Abbas said: "I heard many voices saying these words and I saw some advertisements in the newspapers and elsewhere. I do not want to ban the people from expressing their opinions _ but I am with the two-state solution."
Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.
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